Tag Archives: fortuitous

Steven Pinker’s Sense of Style

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style (Allen Lane 2014)

IMG_1330I love a good argument about punctuation, spelling, syntax or the meaning of words. Does MS Word really allow minuscule to be spelled with two Is? How about the person who wrote to the paper complaining that septic tank should be aseptic tank or at least have an apostrophe to mark the missing letter? What is the difference between ‘my Aunt Mabel’, ‘my aunt Mabel’ and ‘my aunt, Mabel’, and are they all permissible? Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style doesn’t tackle any of these questions, but I reckon he’d be up for the conversation.

For the record, my favourite style guide is Joseph M Williams, Style: Ten lessons in clarity and grace. Pinker doesn’t attempt that book’s succinct guidance, but he brings a cognitive scientist’s perspective to the subject, and his cool, witty, reasonable approach is a joy. Well, mostly a joy: the middle chapter, ‘The web, the Tree and the String’, explains the intricacies of English syntax in a way that verges on the tedious if you already have a grasp of the subject, and is probably impenetrable if you are looking for enlightenment. Apart from that skippable chapter, the book is rich with insight.

Pinker focuses on the ‘classic style’, in which, he says:

The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself. … [P]rose is a window onto the world.

In the classic style, the writer simulates two experiences: showing the reader something and engaging in conversation with the reader. There are plenty of other legitimate styles – Pinker names contemplative, romantic, prophetic, oracular, oratorical, practical, plain, ironic and postmodern – but thankfully this book sticks with just the one, which, Pinker says, is ‘an ideal that can pull writers away from many of their worst habits’.

He identifies a number of those habits, conveniently listed as ‘metadiscourse, signposting, hedging, apologising, professional narcissism, clichés, mixed metaphors, metaconcepts, zombie nouns, and unnecessary passives’. That’s quite a list and for my money an extremely useful one. It’s characteristic of Pinker’s approach that he warns against memorising it as a list of don’ts – better, he says, to keep in mind the guiding metaphor in the quote above.

There’s a great discussion of incomprehensible prose. Rejecting the popular explanation that much academic and bureaucratic writing is deliberately impenetrable for self-protective or self-promoting reasons, he reaches for the tool known as Hanlon’s Razor: ‘Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.’ (Hanlon’s Razor was new to me in that form, so I was interested to read more about it in Wikipedia, and delighted to see that Goethe wrote a version of it in 1774.)

The kind of stupidity Pinker has in mind is what economists call the Curse of Knowledge:

a difficulty of imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.

This sounds simple, yet – and here Pinker’s cognitive science background comes into play – psychologists regularly discover more or less the same thing with new names: egocentrism, hindsight bias, false consensus, illusory transparency, and so on. In the writing context, ‘It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows – that they haven’t mastered the patois of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem to obvious to mention, have no way to visualise a scene that to her is as clear as day.’

Pinker has a lot to say about the Curse of Knowledge, and makes some useful suggestions for how to guard against it, but in the end, sadly, there’s no silver bullet to remove the curse. But how good it is to be reminded starkly:

The form in which thoughts occurs to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by a reader.

After an excellent chapter on coherence, which I plan to reread carefully, Pinker gets to the fun bit of any book on style in a final chapter, ‘Telling Right from Wrong’. After a sweet demolition job on the pedants who write to the newspapers (of whom the ‘septic tank man,my example, not Pinker’s, is my favourite), in which he takes apart the Prescriptivist vs Descriptivist myth, he pronounces on a hundred usage issues – mostly what he gives is the current consensus among linguists, but where experts disagree he gives his own best judgement.

This chapter is a proofreader or copy editor’s delight. I’m grateful for his clarity about the subjunctive. I cheer aloud when he, a USer, curls his lip at US punctuation conventions for the end of quotations, or takes issue with rigid rules about that and which, or talks sense about among and between. I want to be in the room with him to argue about datum and data. I’m chastened by his entries on decimate and unique, and my dissatisfaction about fortuitous remains unallayed. While I don’t understand his argument about between you and I, from now on I’ll stop bridling when people say it. You’ll have your own examples.


Along with about 30 other people, the Art Student and I heard Paul Ham talk at Gleebooks last night. It was one of the smallest Gleebooks turn-outs I’ve seen, and it’s hard not to think the subject may have had a bit of a deterrent effect: his new book Hiroshima Nagasaki. In fact it was a terrific talk. I’ll save whatever I have to say about his argument for when I read the book, which may be some little time. (He was on Lateline recently – here’s a link if you want his gist.)

What I want to note here is that he described what he does as Narrative History. I’m sure learned historians have many finely nuanced definitions of  that, but I liked his version, which is that it is history told without benefit of hindsight – that is, trying to get to the story as it was understood by the actors themselves. He is categorised as a revisionist historian, but objects, saying that the orthodox version (that the bombs were the ‘least abhorrent option’, that they saved a million US lives, that they brought about Japan’s unconditional surrender) is itself revisionist – a recasting after the event that distorts what actually happened on almost all counts.

Fortuitously, I have just been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article in the Atlantic,  ‘Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?‘ I can’t recommend this article strongly enough for its eloquent challenge to received versions of history. The bit that chimed with Paul Ham’s talk, and with some reading and thinking I’ve been doing about massacres in Australia, was this, in reference to the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Gettysburg:

Speakers at the ceremony pointedly eschewed any talk of the war’s cause in hopes of pursuing what the historian David Blight calls ‘a mourning without politics’. Woodrow Wilson, when he addressed the crowd, did not mention slavery but asserted that the war’s meaning could be found in ‘the splendid valor, the manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another, now grasping hands and smiling into each other’s eyes’. Wilson, born into the Confederacy and the first postbellum president to hail from the South, was at that very moment purging blacks from federal jobs and remanding them to separate washrooms. Thus Wilson executed a familiar act of theater—urging the country’s white citizens away from their history, while continuing to act in the spirit of its darkest chapters.

Urging the country’s white citizens away from their history, while continuing to act in the spirit of its darkest chapters. Familiar indeed, but ne’er so well expressed.

Shambhala Chinese Poetry

J P Seaton (editor, & translator of most poems), The Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry (Shambhala 2006)

This was a present for my 60th birthday. I was delighted to receive it but obviously, given that I’m now 63, I was slow to actually read it. Seymour Glass’s passion for Chinese poetry and wisdom is what provided the necessary extra spur (I mean, who was that poet who wanted to be a dead cat? And why?).

The anthology opened a space in my head. It didn’t answer the question about the dead cat (the dead cat poem is absent), but it raised many more. It covers 3000 years of Chinese poetry in 246 pages, including notes. It would hardly be fair to expect more than a taster. What’s more, it would be unrealistic for someone as ignorant of Chinese history and culture as I am to expect more than broad-brush help with interpretation. Despite J P Seaton’s lucid introduction and notes, I confess that many if not most of the poems eluded my grasp – all those proper names and elliptical allusions to Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian traditions amounted to little more than mystifying clutter to my uneducated brain. I could appreciate some lines, like Li I’s wonderfully cinematic

Three hundred thousand men, among these rocks,
this once, as one, together turn: gaze on the moon.

I was moved by some whole poems. But all too often I felt as if I was reading a coded message or a paraphrase, missing the actual poetry, roughly an equivalent of ‘Will I compare you to a day in summer? / You are prettier and cooler: / Strong winds rustle May’s lovely blossoms, etc). Once I caught myself thinking, ‘I hope I get to read that poem one day.’ It became obvious to me that if I am to understand and enjoy this poetry I need to devote a lot more time to it. And maybe I will one day. For now I’ve decided to play around in one poem, ‘Thoughts of a Quiet Night’ by Li Po (701–762). I went searching and found an image of the actual poem, on the China the Beautiful site:

That’s 20 characters. On the Poetry Kit site, Li Po’s biographer An-Lee Chang Williams gives a literal one-word-per-character version:

Bed  fore  bright  moon  light
Doubt  is  ground-on  frost
Raise(d)  head   gaze  clear  moon
Dropp(ed)  head  reminisce  home  country

It’s starkly obvious that a translation has to do more than give such a word-for-word rendering. (Incidentally, I notice that even here, if my copied image is correct, the same character has been rendered as ‘bright’ in line 1 and ‘clear’ in line 3.) In his introduction, J P Seaton discusses the visual qualities of the Chinese:  the first line ‘contains among its five characters a moon (the pictograph for moon) and two more moons, one in the compound ideograph bright and another shining dimly and insistently out of the character for the preposition before.’ He comments, ‘The writing system lets Li Po literally fill his little poem with moonlight.’ He doesn’t mention the difficulty of reproducing the musical effects of a tonal language, or the complexities of navigating the distance between the two grammar systems, or what to do about deeply ingrained terms of reference or understandings of poetic form (though he does discuss form elsewhere).

Translating  a poem from Chinese to English will probably never be straightforward. The sound and look of the words cannot be decanted unchanged from one language to the other. From one point of view all a reader can expect is an honest paraphrase. But when you paraphrase a poem, you’ve lost the poetry, so perhaps one ought to hope for a little more: perhaps a poem in English that corresponds as closely as possible to the original, which means taking liberties. On page 90 of this anthology, the poem becomes:

Before the bed, bright moonlight.
I took it for frost on the ground.
I raised my head to dream upon that moon,
then bowed my head, lost, in thoughts of home.

So much has, perhaps inevitably, been lost, and if An-Lee Chang Williams’s list of words is correct, so much has been added.

China the Beautiful and the An-Lee Chang interview give more than a dozen translations between them. And I just found more. Seeing all these attempts to translate 20 words gives a fascinating glimpse of the art of translation and the nature of poetic composition. It also allows for a deeper grasp of this particular poem, as one person after another tries to capture it in all its suggestive particularity. Here’s An-Lee Chang Williams, who inserts less than J P Seaton (she offers us no emotional guidance as Seaton does with ‘dream’ and ‘lost’, but interestingly changes tense from past to present) without being any more lossy (it’s interesting that both of them have avoided the repetition of ‘bright moon’ in line 3 of  the Chinese):

Bright moonlight by my bed:
First I thought it was ground frost.
I gaze up at the moon,
Bow my head, remembering my homeland.

And here, at the further extreme of adding stuff, is L Cranmer-Byng’s art song version from the early 20th century:

Athwart the bed
I watch the moonbeams cast a trail
So bright, so cold, so frail,
That for a space it gleams
Like hoarfrost on the margin of my dreams.
I raise my head,
The splendid moon I see;
Then droop my head,
And sink to dreams of thee –
My father land, of thee!

And how about this, by someone whose name I can’t read, which goes too far on its own merry way to be called a translation as such, but which brings out a meaning of that ‘dropped’ in line 4 that none of the others seemed to notice or even allow:

A splash of white on my bedroom floor. Hoarfrost?
I raise my eyes to the moon, the same moon.
As scenes long past come to mind, my eyes fall again
on the splash of white, and my heart aches for home.

The very first poem in the book is from at least the fourth century BCE. J P Seaton describes it as ‘certainly an honourable expression  of the ideals of democracy as well as a perennial feminist one’. I don’t read it that way at all, but I agree that it captures something profound:

The Peasant’s Song

Sunups, we get to work;
Sundowns, we get our rest.
Dig wells and drink,
plough fields, to eat:
what has some ’emperor’
to do with us?

Now that’s a poem I’d like to read when I have the time.

Fortuitously, this quote from Jorge Luis Borges turned up in my RSS reader while I was drafting this entry:

Not knowing Greek and Arabic allowed me to read, so to speak, the Odyssey and The Thousand and One Nights in many different versions, so that this poverty also brought me a kind of richness.

(From Fernando Sorrentino’s Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges via The Literary Saloon)

Note: I’ve Australianised the spelling in the quoted passages.

Waleed Aly on conservatism

Waleed Aly, What’s Right: The future of conservatism in Australia (Quarterly Essay 37)

In the 1950s my parents subscribed to The Saturday Evening Post. I habitually started reading it from the back, because there were no cartoons in the front half. There are no cartoons at all in Quarterly Essay, but I usually start up the back here too, because that’s where I find responses to the previous issue, in this case 30 pages about Mungo MacCallum’s essay on Kevin Rudd, Australian Story. Katharine Murphy, national affairs correspondent for the Age, wins the Me Fail I Fly ‘I Wish I’d Said That’ Award for this: ‘The problem with Mungo is you can’t read anything he writes without feeling the need to agree with it on the spot, and wish you’d written it yourself. Reading Mungo is like resisting the pull of a great seducer.’ That’s so much more grown-up and articulate than my own post-reading ‘Hmmm … But I enjoyed the ride.‘ Indeed the opening sentence of Mungo’s response to the correspondence does command assent: ‘The most interesting thing about all the correspondence my essay has provoked is the hugely different ways in which different people see Kevin Rudd.’ [Editor Chris Feik and his Board apparently agree that the multiplicity of views on Kevin is interesting: QE 38 promises to give us yet another essay on the man, this time by David Marr.] He then goes on to characterise each of the respondents: one ‘presents the standard view from the Right’, another is ‘a Labor insider’, a third speaks ‘from his position on the ideological Left’. This mode of analysis is fortuitously held up to a harsh light on page 1 of Waleed Aly’s essay, which of course I read after Mungo’s page 140. According to Aly, the terms Left and Right, ‘in spite of their ubiquity … are utterly meaningless and should be abandoned by anyone interested in having a substantial political conversation.’ The great seducer interrupted in flagrante?

Waleed Aly’s rejection of Left and Right as terms for political debate is not of course in response to Mungo MacCallum’s use of them. As he says:

For a long time I have been intrigued by the fact that I find myself in agreement with much conservative political philosophy, yet in consistent disagreement with politicians and commentators who call themselves conservatives.

The essay sets out to reclaim the ground currently occupied, one might say infested, though Waleed Ly is far too polite and reasonable to put it like that, by  neo-liberals and neo-conservatives. These politicians and commentators, he argues, have moved a long way from the conservative philosophy first articulated by Burke, and are in fact progressives in the sense that they are committed to moving towards an ideal world, albeit one from which most people who actually think of themselves as progressives would recoil in horror. I won’t try to summarise the argument. Much of it might be either glaringly obvious or obviously specious to anyone who has studied political philosophy, but to the general reader (that’s me!) it’s an education, and a pleasurable one.

Aly does a job in this essay that has needed doing for some time. He exposes the contradictions and fallacies in the utterances of the likes of John Howard, Tony Abbott, Nick Minchin or Kevin Andrews, but from a conservative perspective. He hoists them, as it were, on what they claim to be their own petard. ‘The conservative, ‘ he writes for example,

would certainly not run immigration at record levels (as the Howard government did) and then lecture its migrant population on what their values should be. That is especially true when it is done pursuant to a neo-liberal plan, where individuals are encouraged to use their mobility for entrepreneurial reasons, not cultural ones. The conservative takes the world as it is, not as she or he wishes it to be. And it is a world in which pluralisms in culture, politics and identity within a society are an inescapable and irreversible fact of life.

After taking his scalpel to the ne0’s on multiculturalism, he moves on to the climate change ‘debate’, which he describes as ‘a fight to the political death’:

Of course, it is possible that climate-change activists are motivated more by their ideological commitments than by their trust in the scientific consensus. It is conceivable that staunch opponents of capitalism may leap on the opportunity climate change provides to argue for the destruction of the market’s political dominance. But it is also conceivable – and probably much more common – for climate-change believers to take their position based on trust in what they perceive to be conventional wisdom. Climate-change denialism on the part of non-scientists, by contrast, is always an ideological or an emotional process. The intellectual lengths required to sustain it are only feasible for those who have pre-existing reasons for wanting to deny it. That may be because its implications are devastating for one’s present livelihood – as might presently be true of certain farmers, or people working in high-emissions industries – in which case the response is probably emotional. Or it might be because it counters one’s deeply held views of the world, in which case the response is ideological.  … The simple fact is that neo-liberalism is incompatible with the politics of climate-change response. In order for neo-liberalism to be preserved, climate change must, in the first instance, be denied.

As you see, Waleed Aly is not a great seducer. He’s not out to win our assent by charm, or standover tactics, or appeals to team loyalty. On the contrary, he invites us to think with him.

It’s a quick read – just 105 pages. I recommend it.

Added on 30 March: Irfan Yusuf has an excellent review of this Quarterly Essay on New Matilda.

Another fortuitous incident

From page 257 of Amy Wilentz’s book on Haiti, The Rainy Season (about which I’ll write more very soon):

When Duvalier fell, movements like Chavannes’, which had maintained a fairly low profile under Duvalier, burst out into the open and grew rapidly, only to discover that the network of power they thought had been undone by the Dechoukaj [literally ‘uprooting, as of a tree’, of the old regime] was still in place and ready to strike back at them when the time should prove fortuitous.

Amy Wilentz is no slouch as a writer. Her prose is finely tuned, her feel for language strong. The word as used here, as by any number of other thoughtful writers, just doesn’t mean – can’t mean – what the dictionary says it means: ‘happening by chance’. But I don’t recall seeing it used quite this way before, as a synonym for ‘opportune’.

This is why I’m fascinated by the word: it’s in such a state of flux that its meaning wanders all over the place: providential, lucky, opportune. It has an almost wild-card quality.

The Bone Man of Kokoda

Charles Happell, The Bone Man of Kokoda (Pan Macmillan Australia 2008)

I’m not one of those people who are fascinated by World War Two. When war comics were all the rage in my primary school, I was off in a corner reading Donald Duck, Superman, Captain Marvel and a sophisticated detective whose name I don’t remember. But lately I’ve been getting myself an education on the subject. My sister-in-law gave me this book on the strength of recent blog entries, and I approached it with a double sense of obligation: it was a Christmas present, and it promised yet another perspective on a subject that had lain unconsidered in my mind most of my life. Obligation rarely leads to enthusiasm, and I started the book with a heavy heart.

It turns out to be a fabulous book, another of those micro-histories described by Judith Keene as making up history – where hers swam against the main current by being traitors, the hero of this one does so by extraordinary loyalty. It’s a man who, having made a solemn promise in his early 20s, dropped everything in his  60th year, not to go into comfortable retirement but to devote the next 26 years to keeping the promise. When his wife and sons objected, he gave them everything – the house, his thriving business, even his antique samurai sword – set out on his mission, never to speak to them again. His daughter, who understood something of what drove him, remained in touch and now looks after him in his old age.

What drove Kokichi Nishimura was the horrendous experience of being part of the Japanese invasion of New Guinea, seeing all his comrades killed in the jungle, mainly on the Kokoda Trail, and returning as part of a defeated force, despised in some quarters for not having suicided according to the code of bushido, and suspect in others because of the well-publicised atrocities committed by the Japanese forces. What do you do with the rest of your life after that? How do you live when you have fought in the battle of Brigade Hill at the age of 22, in kill-or-be-killed hand-to-hand combat:

Nishimura’s wounded arm was useless, but he drew his sword with his left hand and thrust it at the Australian’s chest; it hit a rib and stopped. The Australian grabbed the sword’s blade with his bare hands and kicked Nishimura in the stomach. The Japanese fell on his back and the sword went flying.
Noticing his enemy’s face up close, Nishimura was struck by how young the Australian was … For a moment, he thought: Why am I fighting this boy whom I don’t even know? But in the next instant he realised he would be killed himself if he didn’t get to his feet and tackle the Australian.
Nichimura launched himself again at the bigger man. Somehow, in the ensuing struggle, he regained his sword from the ground and this time drove it into the Australian’s stomach. The soldier pierced the air with a wail that sounded like an air-raid siren as he fell down, and slipped into unconsciousness. It was a chilling scream that Nishimura never forgot.

Some survivors committed ritual suicide. Many, possibly the mainstream, embraced the new pacifist Japan and tried to forget the war. Some foment rightwing nationalist politics. Nishimura’s path is strikingly individual. He promised his dead companions that he would return to honour their remains, and since 1966 his life has revolved around an uncompromising quest to keep his word, to bring families of the slain, if not the remains of their bodies for burial, then emotionally significant mementoes – a lunchbox, a flag, in one case a rusty pump. As a corollary, he invested his time and resources into projects to help the locals in the places where he conducted his search – building a school, bulldozing roads, helping people get training and set up enterprises.

He’s a fascinating man, a lesson in integrity. And the book is all the more fascinating because written by an Australian. Maybe the ghosts of the Pacific War are on the way to being laid to rest.


Fortuitous’ watch:

My current favourite mystery word makes two appearances in this book.

On page 86, Nishimura sustains nasty damage to his right leg when his ship is sunk by a US torpedo:

In a way his injury proved fortuitous. It meant he could again rest up in hospital and eat regular meals.

And on page 151:

He had relied heavily, too, on the fortuitous windfall he received from the sale of his parcel of land in Kochi.

In the first quote, ‘fortuitous’ clearly means ‘lucky’. It could be replaced by ‘fortunate’ with no change to the meaning. Or perhaps it has a slightly greater emphasis on the arbitrariness of the good fortune. Whichever, it’s used in a way the dictionaries recognise, though some still frown on it.

In the second, the word could almost have its pure, pedant-approved meaning, ‘happening by chance’, though paired with ‘windfall’ it is completely redundant if that’s what it means. It only adds meaning to its sentence if we understand it to mean ‘especially fortunate’.

No, really, what does fortuitous mean?

Mungo MacCallum has coined more than his share of memorable phrases. He quotes poetry and can work up an excellent bush ballad. His prose is generally witty and lucid. He’s not an academic, he’s a writer. In the current Quarterly Essay, which I’ll say more about in a day or two, he writes this:

From the start [non-Indigenous Australians] showed a preference for the young tree green of a new land over the old dead tree of Europe, which was in any case so remote as to be, for all practical purposes, irrelevant. Geoffrey Blainey’s ‘tyranny of distance’ was frequently seen not as a curse but as a blessing. Australia was fortuitously and proudly girt by sea.

I can’t make that fortuitous mean `happening by chance’, whether to one’s advantage or not. The word has clearly taken leave of its dictionary meaning. As in the example I quoted a couple of weeks ago, it seems to be a kind of intensification of fortunate, almost an equivalent of providential for those of us who no longer believe in Providence.

What do you think? Mungo, are you there?

What does fortuitous mean?

Me and the dictionaries I have to hand all agree on the answer to that question, though the Macquarie Dictionary, Third Edition, does take a moment to editorialise. Having defined the word as an adjective meaning ‘happening or produced by chance; accidental’, it goes on:

Usage: Strictly speaking, fortuitous means `happening by chance’, whether to one’s advantage or not. But the similarity with fortunate leads many writers to use the word only when referring to good luck.

That is to say the word has a clear meaning but it’s often used – carelessly or in an uninformed way – to mean something else.

I suppose that’s the way the language changes, and this is a word, like disinterested, that’s keeping its particular meaning only among people who care, but generally being treated as if it’s a slightly pompous variation of a more common word.

But what are we to make of this, which prompted this post? It’s from a respectable academic publisher, in a literary-award winning book that generally uses recognisable English.


In case you can’t read it, the first paragraph begins, ‘Whoever had created Australia, white men were certain that “this land of promise” belonged to them. It seemed fortuitous that the original inhabitants appeared destined to fade away before the superior forces of civilisation and progress.’

I can’t make any sense out of that second sentence, even if fortuitous is being used in its careless sense. Can something both seem to be caused by chance and seem to be destined? If the original inhabitants are – or are to ‘appear’ – to be wiped out by superior forces, surely chance doesn’t come into it.

Honestly, I’m not just being snarky here. I really did stumble over this, worrying that the writer (and the co-author, and the book’s editors and the proofreader*, and the award judges) knew something about the word that I didn’t. Having looked up a number of dictionaries and style guides, I’m now pretty much persuaded that the word has simply been misused, as a rough equivalent of good.

[Maybe I should have read on to the start of the next paragraph – ‘In fact, the Aboriginal population had already been decimated by the rapidity of dispossession in Victoria’ – before going to so much trouble. But the battle to keep the original meaning of decimate is by now long lost.]
* Or, as I saw in the credits of a magazine in an osteopath’s waiting room today, proffreader.