03 August 2006

Fun with Style and Idols

I am having a love-hate relationship with Michael Harvey's brief style book called The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 2003). Why I love it: weighs in at barely over 100 pages, retails for $6.95, and mostly does not commit the errors it identifies. Why I don't love it: claims that two excerpts in the Introduction are "nearly majestic writing," and I beg to differ. But every page since that problem has gotten better. Way better.

For example, Chapter 2 has observed that we often fail to write clearly because we do not want to admit who actually committed certain actions; thus, we choose passive voice or use grammatical expletives to avoid the question of agency. Of course, sometimes we do this because some teacher told us not to use first-person pronouns, so we discover the all-purpose "one" and everything goes downhill from there. Anyway, here's the excerpt (from page 20) that made me laugh out loud:

Some people instinctively turn to the pompous style when things get rough. Consider an example from the Bible, when Moses returns to the Israelites after he has spent forty days on the mountaintop. He's bringing the Ten Commandments, but while he's been gone all hell has broken loose. The Israelites, feeling abandoned in the wilderness, have begun worshipping a new idol that Moses' brother, Aaron, made: a golden calf. Furious, smashes the Ten Commandments and turns to Aaron, who was supposed to have been in charge during his absence. What happened? he wants to know. Where did the golden calf come from? Aaron doesn't flat-out lie, but he tries to weasel out of his role in the debacle:

"And I said unto them, Whosoever hath any gold, let them break it off. So they gave it me: then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf" (Ex 32.24).

"There came out this calf." I've always wondered what look Moses gave Aaron when he heard this. (The Bible doesn't say.)"

It's worth noting that the original incorrectly cites the passage as Exodus 32.23, but the observation remains grammatically perfect. The children of Israel are running around naked, Moses is furious, so Aaron blameshifts. "I just threw the gold in the fire and out came this calf." Our classic excuse when we're caught red-handed.

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