Essays Aren’t Journalism but Pedants Are Pedants

PedantMy last quotation post got me interested, Why Can’t Dems Take Advantage of Rep Insanity? Unfortunately, it is behind a pay wall. So I did a Google search on the starting sentence, to see if anyone had quoted more of the article. The sentence is, “That the Republican Party has worked its way to a lonely and unpopular place is not news.” There wasn’t much. But it did take me to a Linked In page by one Dennis B, How Not to Begin a Story. As usual with Linked In, information about the writer is sketchy. I was only told that Dennis B was, “Author of historical novel about the War of 1812; Chicago Tribune contributing columnist; freelance/content writer.”

His article starts with a reference to Frank’s article with the opening sentence. And then comes Dennis B’s point:

Fine. It’s where I stopped reading. If I already know it, why bother to continue? Are there no editors at Harper’s who know how to write a lead?

This comment screams, “I’m an old fuddy-duddy!” But if that’s the case, why use “lead” instead of “lede”? But okay; either spelling is fine, although I prefer “lede.” But his claim that this is how not to begin a story is preposterous. He is applying standard practice in a news article to an essay. If he had read past the first sentence, he would have known that Frank was saying that everyone knows how screwed up the Republican Party is, so it is surprising that the Democrats have not managed to take advantage of it. Thus, his essay is an attempt to explain that.

What Dennis B is doing is what I’ve come to calling “what I learned in grammar school” thinking. I see this all the time with people who have some pet grammar rule that they learned when they were young. And now they are certain that it is The Truth™ because some teacher told them it was so. My favorite example of this is that one must never start a sentence with a conjunction. But it is hard to find a great writer who doesn’t break this “rule” all the time. Opening Moby-Dick at random:

But the side ladder was not the only strange feature of the place, borrowed from the chaplain’s former sea-farings.

And Shakespeare starts more sentences with “and” than a five year old does summarizing the plot of a new Harry Potter movie:

And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.

So I assume that Dennis B learned in journalism school that all stories should start like this, “A manhunt was underway after a gunman opened fire at an event featuring a cartoonist who had caricatured the Prophet Muhammad, and another person was shot dead near a synagogue.” That would make the literary world very boring indeed. But there is something to be said for that style of writing. Perhaps I should have started this article with a proper lede:

In an embarrassing post on Linked In, a pedant mistakenly criticized the opening sentence of an essay as though it were a news story. The pedant, who goes by the moniker Dennis B, appears to have taken a journalism class. Grammar experts agree that his post is indicative of a rigid approach to writing that leads to boring copy and long conversations with bartenders about why no one willingly talks to him for more than two minutes.

Dennis B might be right. It might have been better to go in that direction.

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