Language Log is a language blog run by a team of terrifyingly intelligent linguists–I can follow about half the content on a no-hangover day. LL began in 2003; I discovered it only last week (throat slash). I have since moved from admiring to obsessing–checking the contributors’ rankings on Rate My Professor, googling their images, forcing my husband to read a year’s worth of their archived posts (with no pee breaks), and much more. Here is an excerpt from the post that made me a linguistics professors groupie.
“Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.
I think what enabled the first word to tip me off that I was about to spend a number of hours in the company of one of the worst prose stylists in the history of literature was this. Putting curriculum vitae details into complex modifiers on proper names or definite descriptions is what you do in journalistic stories about deaths; you just don’t do it in describing an event in a narrative. So this might be reasonable text for the opening of a newspaper report the next day:
Renowned curator Jacques Saunière died last night in the Louvre at the age of 76.
But Brown packs such details into the first two words of an action sequence — details of not only his protagonist’s profession but also his prestige in the field. It doesn’t work here. It has the ring of utter ineptitude. The details have no relevance, of course, to what is being narrated (Saunière is fleeing an attacker and pulls down the painting to trigger the alarm system and the security gates). We could have deduced that he would be fairly well known in the museum trade from the fact that he was curating at the Louvre.
The writing goes on in similar vein, committing style and word choice blunders in almost every paragraph (sometimes every line). Look at the phrase “the seventy-six-year-old man”. It’s a complete let-down: we knew he was a man — the anaphoric pronoun “he” had just been used to refer to him. (This is perhaps where “curator” could have been slipped in for the first time, without “renowned”, if the passage were rewritten.) Look at “heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.” We don’t need to know it’s a masterpiece (it’s a Caravaggio hanging in the Louvre, that should be enough in the way of credentials, for heaven’s sake). Surely “toward him” feels better than “toward himself” (though I guess both are grammatical here). Surely “tore from the wall” should be “tore away from the wall”. Surely a single man can’t fall into a heap (there’s only him, that’s not a heap). And why repeat the name “Saunière” here instead of the pronoun “he”? Who else is around? …”
Read the rest of the post (there’s a lot more) here.
Write Pullum (the author of the excerpted post) a mash note. Donate your Dan Browns to Oxfam. Burn your ms. I’m undecided whether my admiration for this piece overshadows my humiliation at having committed similar errors in my writing, but I know this much is true: every aspiring writer should subscribe to LL’s feed, if only to avoid a similar Pullum post on your future novel.