Structure, Style, and a Warning about the Word “He”

I’ve been going through some old copies of the New York Times Book Review. A librarian friend saves them for me, and I go through the pile slowly, as a treat and reward for plugging away at my current writing projects.

Sometimes the gap between publication and reading leads to surprises. I just read a review of a biography of comedian Bill Cosby that doesn’t mention any of the sex scandals that have been filling newspaper pages in recent weeks.

But Cosby is not my subject today. I want to talk about a column called “Can Writing Be Taught?” that appeared in the August 24 issue of the Book Review. Author Zoe Heller described her frustration when she tried to help her daughter with a school writing assignment. Here were the instructions her daughter was given:

In the first sentence, state your general theme; in the second sentence, state your thesis; in the third sentence, provide a road map of how you will advance your thesis….

“No one,” Zeller complained, “has ever talked to her intelligently about structure or style.” Amen. And I would add that the instructions provide no encouragement to engage the reader or provide background.

Templates and formulas often get a bad rap, but they’re immensely useful. I just evaluated a scholarly submission that would have been much better (publishable, in fact) if the author had used a formula: Get your reader’s attention, provide background, state your thesis, start each paragraph with a topic sentence that supports the thesis, develop the topic sentence into a paragraph, and build to a climax whenever you can.

But Zeller has a point. The formula or template must be taught in the larger context of talking “intelligently about structure or style.”

That scholarly submission would also have benefited from careful proofreading. (It’s mind-boggling: Someone submitted a scholarly article to an academic publisher without proofreading it. How? Why?)

One of the problems (among many) that I marked was with the word he. He (in case anyone asks you) is one of the most dangerous words in the English language. I’m not going to quote from the paper, but I saw a similar problem a few minutes ago in a literature newsletter:

Ezra Pound was among Hemingway’s friends when, in his early twenties, he arrived in Paris in the early 20s (that’s his passport photo).

192px-Ernest_Hemingway_passport_photo_40-1548M 2

So here’s a question for you: Whose passport photo – Ezra Pound’s or Ernest Hemingway’s? You can’t tell. (I finally Googled the picture and found out that it’s from Hemingway’s passport.) So here’s a rule: NEVER use he or him when there are two males in a sentence. Repeat the name if you have to, or revise the sentence in another way to eliminate any confusion.

Here’s how I would have written the sentence:

Ezra Pound was among Hemingway’s friends when, in his early twenties, Hemingway arrived in Paris in the early 20s (that’s his passport photo).  BETTER

Careful attention to these details is the mark of an excellent writer. That – and intelligent guidelines about “structure or style” – should be emphasized in every writing program.



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