Pompous Stupidity

Oliver Kamm once again grumbles about people other than him giving aspiring writers advice:

Now the article he links to is a bit crap, but so is Kamm’s dismissal of it. The biggest error the columnist makes is equating stylistic preferences with grammar, which despite Kamm’s complaints about people doing this has nonetheless gifted him a regular column with which to share them.

Regardless of the other points the columnist makes, he is right to advise against using the term “very unique”. If I saw such a pairing I’d think the author ought to have found a better description, or – if it was unique – to drop the “very”. Kamm’s argument seems to be that if a famous writer has used it, then everybody else can too. This is idiotic. In Charlotte Brontë’s case, the overall quality of her output allows her to use pretty much any term she likes. But not everyone is Charlotte Brontë and if their work does not match her standard, they have less leeway. There are some truly awful passages in The Lord of the Rings and too much repetition, but nobody cares because overall it is a masterpiece. Nevertheless you’d perhaps tell an aspiring writer not to use the word “carven” to describe every damned pillar their heroes encounter, even if you acknowledge that Tolkien did just that.

There’s a good analogy here with sport. Top-class sportsmen can get away with pulling off audacious tricks on the field: Kevin Pietersen with the switch-hit, René Higuita’s scorpion kick, or this penalty by Lionel Messi. They have license to do so only because they have proved themselves masters of the basics to the point their overall product is beyond doubt and inadvisable behaviour can be overlooked. But if a lesser player were to do it, particularly one who is just setting out and a long way from proving themselves, they’d be rightly criticised and told not to do it again.

Back to writing, there is an error in the plot of The Big Sleep where Raymond Chandler forgets to tell us who killed the chauffeur. This doesn’t matter because the writing is of such high quality that glaring plot holes can be overlooked. According to Kamm’s logic, aspiring writers shouldn’t worry about tying up loose ends in a story because Raymond Chandler didn’t. This is pompous stupidity, and probably has less to do with improving people’s writing than signalling that he is familiar with the classics.

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26 thoughts on “Pompous Stupidity

  1. My schoolteachers didn’t much like “very”, never mind the preposterous “very unique”.

    Another eyebrow-raiser of recent (American?) origin is the odd use of “only”, as in “he was one of the only politicians to be an honest man.” Wozz wrong with “few”?

  2. Pingback: Punctuation matters | Tim Worstall

  3. I’ve got no problem with ‘very unique’, given an appropriate context.

    It’s an amplification, or perhaps a clarification, designed to draw ones attention to the situation in question. It’s not just unique, it’s surprisingly or exceptionally so.

    Yes- we all know unique means that in and of itself, but there are so many unique things or situations that are unexceptional- a run of the mill thing- I can come up with many examples of where one of those unique situations may be worthy of specific focus.

  4. It’s an amplification, or perhaps a clarification, designed to draw ones attention to the situation in question.

    I’ve found it’s always worth asking if they are necessary to begin with, particularly amplification. I’d certainly go with absolutely unique, rather than very, which implies there is a sliding scale of uniqueness. If that’s the case, then why use unique? Perhaps “unusual” or “rare” would be better.

  5. I see your point: but I rely on my defence of context.

    On your post specifically: I’m not a fan of any of the Bronte chicks, btw- but ‘very unique’ just doesn’t strike me as a heinous crime. I do worry though that you give her a bye on the basis of her popularity.

    By extension, execrable American crime writers like Kellermann are paragons of literary virtue based on numbers of copies shifted.

  6. I see your point: but I rely on my defence of context.

    That’s fair enough.

    I do worry though that you give her a bye on the basis of her popularity.

    Not just that, it’s more that she’s stood the test of time. I’ve never read a word of hers either.

  7. Unique is a word whose definition is very slowly expanding to cover interesting, unusual or curious. Why not use those words rather than abusing unique? If you check Google ngram, unique was not used very much in books in the 19thc and its use has grown rapidly. “Very unique” is rare over both centuries. A lot of usages are in marketing, promotional literature, what you might term “estate agent English” – by people who are not very interested in the careful and precise use of language. Interestingly, one literary example is Mr Toad describing his “very unique bachelor residence”, Toad Hall, in The Wind in the Willows. Charlotte Bronte was almost certainly using it ironically in the quote from Villette. If you want to say very unique and are not being ironic you should probably say strange or interesting instead. The fact that Kamm doesn’t comment on this is in itself interesting. The grammatical point is that unique is normally accepted to be a non-gradable adjective like perfect, although both can be modified by adverbs such as almost, nearly, completely, etc

  8. This assumes that Charlotte Brontë didn’t look at it later and say to herself “very unique? What the actual fuck?”.

    Never read her, but even the best people make mistakes.

  9. Never read her, but even the best people make mistakes.

    Exactly, it’s a particularly daft appeal to authority.

  10. Graeme, wouldn’t the Wind in the Willows usage be intended to show that Mr Toad is, well, Mr Toad?

    Oddly, although I’ve seen it written a few times, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say “very unique”.

  11. Back to writing, there is an error in the plot of The Big Sleep where Raymond Chandler forgets to tell us who killed the chauffeur.

    I think it’s fair to note that in The Simple Art of Murder, Chandler himself makes the point that in hardboiled detective fiction who committed the crime is less important than the dirty secrets that get uncovered along the way. It’s part of what distinguishes the genre from Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie drawing-room mysteries. Loose ends exist precisely because the genre is focused on the messy, ugly underside of the seemingly respectable.

  12. @Daniel Ream

    And also in the not-so-hardboiled detective fiction.

    David Lynch made the exact same point about the murder that introduces (the utterly brilliant) Twin Peaks. It was a device to tell multiple stories about that town. He was perfectly content to leave the perpetrator’s identity a hanging question for however long the series ran.

  13. ‘Kamm’s argument seems to be that if a famous writer has used it, then everybody else can too.’

    But it is wise to learn a craft well to begin with before taking (poetic or literary) licence with it. There is quite a difference between deliberately doing a thing badly, and doing it badly because you know no better.

  14. ‘Kamm’s argument seems to be that if a famous writer has used it, then everybody else can too.’

    But it is wise to learn a craft well to begin with before taking (poetic or literary) licence with it. There is quite a difference between deliberately doing a thing badly, and doing it badly because you know no better.

  15. It was a device to tell multiple stories about that town.

    I think Chandler’s plots are known for that, and Dashiell Hammett’s considered more tightly written. You read Chandler for the prose and the dialogue, not the plot. The same could be said for Wodehouse whose plots, although very tightly written, concern subjects of complete insignificance.

  16. Yup on Chandler. I just googled “Chandler quotes”. They were all from Friends and reffed Chandler Bing. But language evolves all the time. I make up words and people misunderestimate me for it.

  17. There is also a big difference when an author is quoting a character or where the narrator is a character in their own right.
    In those cases grammar can be totally incorrect, as long as that is how the character would naturally speak or write.

  18. @DMcD Yes, I thought it was amusing because Mr Toad is just the kind of character who would take estate agent particulars at face value.

    As for Ms Bronte, the context is slightly strange:

    “I saw the little thing shiver. “Come to me,” I said, wishing, yet scarcely hoping, that she would comply: for she was a most strange, capricious, little creature, and especially whimsical with me. She came, however, instantly, like a small ghost gliding over the carpet. I took her in. She was chill: I warmed her in my arms. She trembled nervously; I soothed her. Thus tranquillized and cherished she at last slumbered.

    “A very unique child,” thought I, as I viewed her sleeping countenance by the fitful moonlight, and cautiously and softly wiped her glittering eyelids and her wet cheeks with my handkerchief. “How will she get through this world, or battle with this life? How will she bear the shocks and repulses, the humiliations and desolations, which books, and my own reason, tell me are prepared for all flesh?”

    She departed the next day; trembling like a leaf when she took leave, but exercising self-command.”

    So she seems to be using it in the extended sense of “unique” rather than the strict sense. However, “unique” was not a commonly used word in the first half of the 19thc if the Google corpus is at all reliable. In the 1818 edition of Dr Johnson’s dictionary, the editor added that it was “an affected and useless term of modern times”, with “useless” probably conveying the implication that the word is seldom used or usable. I think that Bronte was probably using it to convey something of the strange and hyper-sensitive character of this young girl, almost as if the narrator cannot believe that such a person might exist or that she thinks the girl is pretending to feel these emotions

  19. Thanks for the context, Graeme. You know, I’m starting to think “very unique” is not a bad construction after all. Maybe there are degrees of uniqueness. A fox is unique, but a platypus is very unique.

  20. Pompous stupidity is pretty much Kamm’s stock-in-trade. He only has two lines of argument in his ‘Pedant’ column – one is the argument from authority, which has lready been ridiculed above. The other is the post-modern view that the only possible definition of ‘correct’ English is “whatever the majority of native speakers choose to do”.

    I occasionally challenge him to account for the widespread use of “I could of”, “I should of”, but the only response I’ve received (from one of the acolytes rather than the great man himself, who is far too important to engage with actual subscribers) is that this is a spelling mistake.

  21. The other is the post-modern view that the only possible definition of ‘correct’ English is “whatever the majority of native speakers choose to do”.

    Oh yes, I encountered that here. But Kamm doesn’t realise he’s undoing his own argument: if he insists that stylists are incorrectly using the term “grammar” to mean “style”, why should not their meaning of the term also be correct due to its widespread use in such a way. Indeed, somebody asked him this in relation to the passive voice and immediately his acolytes leaped in to say that this would be “technically wrong”. Unlike “should of”, naturally.

    from one of the acolytes rather than the great man himself, who is far too important to engage with actual subscribers

    I have noticed that. I managed to get Daniel Finkelstein running about shouting “absurd! absurd!” like a PG Wodehouse character because I dared to disagree with the great Oliver Kamm, who of course declined to respond himself.

  22. Very unique?

    Reminds me of a journalist I worked with (a geordie so every day he looked forward to his dinner with unbridled enthusiasm) who once summed all forms of praise and adulation with the conclusion: “You can’t beat great.”

    (He also said the only word to never appear in parliamentary debates is the word ‘fun.’ Yes, he admitted there was the use of ‘funfair’ but no use of ‘fun’ on its own)

  23. Does fvcking unique count? Given previous posts on polyamory and a visit to Mykonos I’m wondering. Maybe wonderful has various grades too.

  24. Reminds me of the argument I get whenever I point out that in English, the correct third-person singular pronoun for a person of unknown sex is the masculine.

    “But Shakespeare used ‘they'”, as if that were relevant.

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