Avoid the nouny style!

Photo by Aaron Burden

I’m currently living in the Netherlands in my grandmother’s apartment. On the coffee table she’s curated a selection of books that various family members have written, which fills me with a jealous rage since I’m not included, since I haven’t written any book. To pretend to myself that I’m not jealous I graciously pick up my mother’s book and start to read it, undoubtedly also to reassure myself that these books are anyway terribly boring and that I could do way better, you know, if I tried.

My mother’s book is named “Avoid the nouny style!”, and is about a certain grammatical construct and the writing manuals that tell aspiring writers to avoid it. My mother’s point is that this advice is not nuanced and not supported by academic research, but that’s not what I’m interested in. What catches my eye is the passion and zeal with which some writing manuals talk about avoiding a grammatical construct: “Normally I would give a reasoned argument about what I find a good and bad use of language. But in this case I won’t even bother. Turning innocent verbs into nouns is morally reprehensible. […] Just don’t do it. Deal?”

I laugh a bit about how dramatic it is but then I realize I recognize this pattern: an instructional book where one small instruction is left unexplained because it’s simply “how it’s done”. I’d like to argue now that this unexplained instruction is not simply due to the ignorance or intellectual laziness of the author, but that it serves as a kind of invitation to identify ourselves with what we are trying to become, and that it can only function in that way insofar as it remains unexplained.

How? Imagine you are an aspiring writer reading a writing manual. Why are you reading it? Because you want to become a good writer, which implies that currently you feel you are not a good writer, mediocre or maybe even bad. But what makes a good writer? The more you learn about writing, style and grammar, the more you realize this is an impossible question to answer. It’s subjective. The experts don’t agree. It depends on genre, target audience, and a million other factors. You can’t even rely on tradition since language evolves over time. So how are you ever going to become a good writer if nobody knows what good writing is?

But now the writing manual says that there is one little thing, the “nouny style”, that you must avoid at all costs, something that regular people would do without even thinking twice, and it’s not explained why: just that it’s simply not done, one shouldn’t do it. Such a statement implies the existence of a common sense, a shared knowledge exclusive to some in-group of presumably good writers, since regular people use the nouny style all the time. Now, finally, you have found something stable that can guarantee your identification as a good writer.

The crucial part is that avoidance of the nouny style must stay unexplained: that way, it points to a knowledge that is beyond reasoning and subjectivity. If you start to reason about it, like my mother cruelly does, it falls victim to the same contradictions as all the other writing advice and you are back where you started when you didn’t know what makes a good writer. Avoiding the nouny style becomes a lure that captures your desire to become a good writer through implying a stable criterion of what is a good writer.

To be sure, this logic doesn’t only apply to aspiring writers. You become an Ajax fan not simply by supporting Ajax, but by adopting an irrational hatred of Feijenoord. And me, I imagine that having a book published will earn me the identity of intellectual. However I’m now forced to admit that there is no objective standard by which I can measure myself an intellectual. But… my grandmother’s coffee table doesn’t know that.



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