Nerds, passive peeving, and fantasy diction

Stan Carey has a post up that’s yetanother much-needed rant about passive voice peevery, and how self-styled grammarians who advise against its use (in the fine tradition of Messrs. Strunk and White) can invariably be relied on to not know what the heck they’re talking about. You should go read it. I’ll wait.

The term passive voice as a grammatical concept has a specific meaning. The mechanics of it are a little arcane for the layperson; Geoff Pullum, explaining it in linguistic terms as simply as he can manage in his Language Log essay “The passive in English,” admits up-front to needing about 2500 words to do the subject justice. But in practice, it’s (mostly) fairly easy to identify – my personal favorite test is that if you can insert “by zombies” after the verb phrase, it’s passive voice. So Bob was eaten by zombies is in the passive voice, but *Bob was going by zombies home is nonsense in English, and so that “was going” is not, in fact, passive, no matter how much E.B. White and Mrs. Badcrumble were keen to convince you it is.

Also, as Pullum and other language writers (Carey among them; he’s had cause to write on this subject before) point out, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the passive voice. It’s a useful tool in the toolbox of English speech and composition, and you can do things with it that you can’t really achieve by any other means. Depriving yourself of it because some blowhard wants to shame your prose with words like “weak” and “weaselly” and “flabby” and “flat” is giving in to that prime fallacy of the peeververein (and indeed, of grayfaced puritans everywhere), that if people might possibly do something too much they should be told not to do it at all.

(On the flip side, the good news about most people not being able to identify passives even if they’ve been bitten by them is that you can often get away with using them when you need to even if you’ve been told not to. I confess that I have, on multiple occasions, turned in work containing passive constructions at places that had misguided No Passive Voice Ever rules in their stylebooks, confident that their appearance in context was so utterly natural that it would never occur to anyone to call them out, and I was right and they didn’t.)

Anyway, seeing Carey’s rant gave me cause to remember one of my own recent experiences of spotting misidentified passive peeving in the wild, and reflect on the deleterious effect it has on a demographic I’m more than a little invested in. And so to delve deeper into this particular instance of not-actually-passive-griping, we’re going to have to talk a bit about nerds.

Nerds, as I might have coyly hinted at in my previous post, are natural-born peevers. They are my tribe and I love them, but oh boy is this true. It makes a certain kind of sense; some of the common characteristics of nerdhood are a deep interest in detail and minutia, a preoccupation with logic, a fixation on process and doing things the “right” way, and a general valorization of erudition – the one thing your average nerd wants to be above all other things is smart, and in some unfortunate cases, this becomes a desire to be seen as smarter than everyone else around them.[1]

(I’m overgeneralizing in a big way here, of course, and it’s worth mentioning that nerd culture is also the source of a great deal of innovative linguistic playfulness like LOLcat and Netspeak-born conventions like can’t even with and because [noun]. But we’ll leave that side of things for a future post for the moment.)[2]

I mention all of this as prelude to set up the following scenario: I run an ongoing game of Dungeons & Dragons for friends, set in the Forgotten Realms, arguably the game’s most well-known and popular setting. And since I am but an egg in the matter of the official Realmslore (yeah, we really call it that), I was curious as to what of the published fiction might be worth reading – tie-in novels in general being, shall we say, a bit of a mixed bag for quality and readability. I knew I liked what I’d read of Ed Greenwood, but nothing beyond that, and so this video – the first in a long series covering FR novel reviews – looked like a promising start.

It turns out the reviewer, Michael T. Bradley, does not share my fondness for Greenwood’s prose. (If you’re not part of the fairly narrow band of the population for whom that name means anything, Ed Greenwood is the guy who invented the Forgotten Realms half a century or so ago, before there even was a D&D, and the creator of a handful of its iconic characters, about whom he’s written some of the key novels and stories of the setting.) That’s not a deal-breaker on its own, but here’s part of his justification:

…another thing that’s going to come up a lot, and I’ll try not to harp on it, but it’s the fact that I cannot stand Ed Greenwood’s writing. He seems like a nice guy and he seems – y’know, obviously he created the Realms and he’s pretty passionate about it so, go Ed, but oh man can I not stand his writing. … 212 Dalereckoning calendar we start Elminster: [The] Making of a Mage, which as you might have guessed I did not care for but I gave it a shot because, y’know, come on, Elminster, right? I gave it a shot and just could not get into it. There’s a scene very early on where Elminster, a young Elminster, is grabbed by a dragon, and Greenwood, like, he uses the phrase as Elminster is being carried by this dragon, squirming with fear, “Deep were the dragon’s eyes,” and it just, it was like, really, passive voice right here? Like, it just totally threw me out of the action, and made it difficult to focus on it.

This was where, if Bradley’s YouTube video had been a book, I’d have thrown it against the wall. Look, de gustibus non disputandem est, and nobody needs to justify that a particular author’s style doesn’t work for them or isn’t fun to read. But if you’re going to place yourself in a position of literary critic, you really ought to make an effort to not be boneheadedly ignorant about the things you’re saying.

Bradley makes two mistakes here that make it frankly impossible for me to take him at all seriously. The most immediate one is the matter discussed above, that he’s both misidentifying passive voice and treating it as some kind of stylistic error on Greenwood’s part. Deep were the dragon’s eyes is a solidly active construction (note how it fails the “by zombies” test), and while it’s certainly not a plain-language phrasing – and why should it be, in a fantasy novel? – the only reason I can see for it “throwing the reader out of the action” is if that reader has absorbed the idiotic idea that all infinitival (be-variant) constructions are passive and that moreover Passive Is Bad.

The other error on Bradley’s part is a more subtle one, and it’s that he seems to be tone-deaf to the history and conventions of the genre he’s attempting to critique. The inverted sentence structure of Deep were the dragon’s eyes is a nigh-perfectly compact example of deliberately elevated diction – an attempt to invoke the style of a mythic and formal storytelling mode.

And, in fact, not only is Bradley mistaken about the use of the passive, he’s also misremembering both the line (understandable when you’re speaking unscripted for a YouTube video, but if you’re going to start doing textual critique, it might help your case to refer to the actual, you know, text) and the scene. Here’s the actual text from Elminster: The Making of a Mage, which takes place not as young El is being carried away by the dragon, but when he first sees it circling around the meadow where he’s standing:

Vast and terrible, it swept toward him, slowing ponderously with wings spread to catch the air, looming against the blue northern sky. And there was a man on its back!

“Dragon at the gate,” Elminster whispered the oath unthinkingly, as that gigantic head tilted a little, and he found humself gazing full into the old, wise, and cruel eyes of the great wyrm.

Deep they were, and unblinking; pools of dark evil into which he plunged, sinking, sinking….

That’s not only not the passive voice (which, while we’re at it, can work perfectly well in a scene of intense action, but set that aside for now), it’s also not a moment of excitement interrupted by a misplaced infinitival. It’s a young man’s first full look at a creature of legend, as he’s overcome by the awe and terror of its presence. Nor, by the way, is that particular construction some sort of tic of Greenwood’s in an attempt to purple up the prose of his fantasy tale; that’s the only place it occurs in the scene, a single, deliberate archaism to punctuate the intrusion of an ancient and mythic presence into the everyday world.

Just for contrast, here’s a scene from another noted work of fantasy, which does occur in the middle of an already action-filled sequence:

The great shadow descended like a falling cloud. And behold! it was a winged creature: if bird, then greater than all other birds, and it was naked, and neither quill nor feather did it bear, and its vast pinions were as webs of hide between horned fingers; and it stank. A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, lingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil. …

Upon it sat a shape, black-mantled, huge and threatening. A crown of steel he bore, but between rim and robe naught was there to see, save only a deadly gleam of eyes: the Lord of the Nazgûl. To the air he had returned, summoning his steed ere the darkness failed, and now he was come again, bringing ruin, turning hope to despair, and victory to death. A great black mace he wielded.

Right there, that’s half a dozen instances (neither quill nor feather did it bear, A creature of an older world maybe it was, A crown of steel he bore, naught was there to see, To the air he had returned, A great black mace he wielded) of the same sort of inversion as Deep they were (also none of which, as you may have guessed by now, are in the passive voice), and I hope no one’s about to accuse Tolkien, philologist and conlanging pioneer, of not knowing what he’s doing with words. The elevated style he uses might not be your cup of tea, but it certainly has the intended effect of invoking the flavor and cadence of both early modern English and the Anglo-Saxon verse that the Professor drew on for his inspiration. (He’ll hit that latter note in particular with the same technique in a couple of pages, in Théoden’s death poem: Mighty was the fallen, / meet was his ending.) As one of the founding voices of modern fantasy, he pioneered the high-fantasy elevated style to such an extent that following techniques like this is, for good or ill, a handy shortcut if the feel you’re going for is “Tolkienesque.”

As I mentioned above, Greenwood has been at this a long time now; he started writing Realms stories as a child, as pastiches of the writers who inspired him, some from the fantasy and pulp traditions, but others from the “mainstream” of the literary canon. By his own admission, he was a voracious and indiscriminate reader who devoured everything on the shelves of his father’s library, absorbing dozens of literary voices and styles. In general, his work is a lot closer to the style of Fritz Leiber, who he cites as a particular influence (and who as far as I can tell never uses the inverted construction that Tolkien was fond of, though he throws in some carefully-placed archaisms of other varieties); we can be sure that when he writes a phrase like Deep they were, and unblinking he’s doing it on purpose to underline a particular moment and imbue it with a specific flavor.

(I’ve barely skipped a stone across the surface of the subject of diction and voice in the fantasy genre here, but it’s a huge, deep, and fascinating topic, and one I suspect I’ll return to at some point to explore at greater length. For now, suffice it to say that if you’re not familiar with fantasy fiction and think it all reads like Lord of the Rings, or clumsy, overwritten poor imitations thereof, you are about as mistaken as it’s possible to be.)

Once again: None of this is meant to be an argument that you should like something you don’t like. If Michael Bradley bounces off the prose style of Ed Greenwood, that’s fine, and he owes no one any justification for it. One of the more important life skills when choosing the entertainments to fill one’s limited leisure time is learning when to say I am not the audience for this. What’s irritating about his dismissal is not that he doesn’t like Greenwood’s work, it’s that he’s absorbed a dumbass “rule” that he thinks is an objective measure of quality, and he thinks that gives him a reason to sniff at something that not only the not-rule doesn’t even apply to, but is a legitimate and time-honored technique of the tradition it’s part of. And that, I’m sorry to say, is just like a goddamn nerd.

I’m being harsh on the fellow members of my tribe here, but it’s past time we took some harshness for this sort of thing. We swell the numbers of the peeververein far too much as it is, and we need to cut it the hell out. More than anything, we need to get over ourselves when it comes to the temptation to judge the people around us whose dialect and register isn’t the same as the one we choose to employ, and we need to apply that much-vaunted reason and science to understanding when something we think we know about language is an ill-founded superstition. We managed to make fighting zombies cool again; surely we can do the same for zombie rules.


[1] It may be noted that I am veeeeeery carefully sidestepping here the matter of autism-spectrum neurology and its possible greater-than-average prevalence among self-identified nerds and those who engage in nerd-associated hobbies, particularly the type that’s still sometimes informally called Asperger’s Syndrome (a designation the DSM-V has now done away with as a scientific category). I suspect this greater prevalence is a real thing, and I suspect it has some bearing on the issues under discussion; but I have zero evidence at my disposal to back that up, and less than zero qualification to armchair-diagnose my friends and acquaintances – not to mention that talking about the profile and behavior of folks who are “on the spectrum,” Aspie and otherwise, in any kind of general terms is a mug’s game, and likely to be both inaccurate and offensive at best to the non-neurotypical folks in question, and I’m not going to do it.

[2] ETA: Mike Pope, commenting on my link to this post on Facebook, points out that the consensus in the world of language studies is that constructions like can’t even with and because [noun] probably originate primarily with young women, some portion of whom no doubt identify with or participate in nerd culture, but not all. It’s a fair cop. I’m making assumptions here because I tend to encounter these things for the first time, and most prevalently, in the online work of writers who are both, but that’s as likely to be my own confirmation bias as anything else. Which just goes to show you that jumping to conclusions without actually studying the subject in question is a fine way to potentially look a fool in public.

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5 thoughts on “Nerds, passive peeving, and fantasy diction

  1. It’s a common variant on the “can’t even” construct, as in “I can’t even with this.” (Urban Dictionary also specifically lists can’t even with you as a separate entry, but it’s certainly not the only way the phrase is used to include “with.”) A brief visit to the Oracle at Google suggests that it’s probably less frequent than “can’t even” on its own, but it’s out there.

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  2. What struck me on reading the quote from Bradley was “Elminster was being carried by this dragon”, which is pure passive, with agent and all, and he didn’t seem to realise it!

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  3. Of course he didn’t; it’s such a natural construction in English that we tend to use it intuitively when we need to. That’s one of the things that makes the peeving of anti-passive absolutists so ridiculous. (And, IIRC, Strunk and White do much the same thing in the section that they’re warning against [mostly misidentified] passives too.)

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  4. […] I cast some shade on my fellow nerds last week for our preoccupation with minutiae, but it’s also true that sometimes deep knowledge of a subject makes it hard to appreciate things that brush against it in a, shall we say, less immersive way. They could have at least made some effort to get the details right is the eternal lament of anyone who has just seen their field of interest given a half-cocked treatment in some bit of commercial media, and none of us who grumble about such things ever really understand that we are too narrow a band of the intended audience to make that effort worthwhile. So it goes. […]

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