Interview with Arthur Plotnik

Photo of author


Arthur Plotnik
Arthur Plotnik

Arthur Plotnik is a versatile author with a distinguished background in editing and publishing. Two of his nine books have been featured selections of the Book of the Month Club:
The Elements of Expression: Putting Thoughts Into Words (Holt, B&N), now in a new and expanded edition from Viva Editions, with e-book and audio versions.
–and The Elements of Editing, (Macmillan-/Longman), a standard reference through more than twenty printings.

Please introduce yourself and provide some background information.

Hail, noble Grammaristas and Grammaristos! Guess what? I’ve just learned a new word (from my daily feed); namely, “ambivert,” or someone whose personality type falls midway between introvert and extrovert. So finally, after all these dazed years, I know what I am besides a 142-pound writer and language-wonk with a funny name.

It all makes sense now: Driven by words; torn between types. As an east coast undergrad I ambivertishly withdrew from a teaching program to burrow into the humanities, then studied quietly under Philip Roth and others at the Iowa Graduate Writers Workshop before bursting out as a newspaper reporter back east. Soon, however, I holed up in a basement apartment to write (eighteen) seedy pseudonymous paperbacks on commission. Gasping for clean air, I surfaced to earn a library degree and face the public from the Library of Congress public information office.

Later, as editorial director of magazines and books at the American Library Association in Chicago, I let the outgoing Plotnik rule by day and the introspective self by night—when I would muse on the nature of editorial labors. The musings became The Elements of Editing, a Book-of-the-Month-Club featured selection packaged with The Elements of Style and The Elements of Grammar. Six books followed—four on verbal expressiveness—plus columns for Editorial Eye and The Writer, privately composed in my lair but demanding shameless appearances to promote the “brand,” as publishers view one’s sacred essence. Today my equilibrium rests on joys of the hearth, the unpurposed writing life, and dogpaddling in the tides of language.

What is so interesting about language/grammar to you?

The potential for stimulation. Most of us crave this quality in our lives—something to stir the ganglia, strop the wits, prick up the ears, transcend the ordinary, clear the fug, bring us together in the dance of being. And nothing can deliver this gift better than language, its messages framed and facilitated by grammatical conventions.

I’m drawn in particular to language for self-expression, for the presentation of all those percolating ideas and passions, for the establishment of one’s place on the planet. As Buddhist poet Zoketsu Norman Fischer sees it, “We are created by, defined by language, and can only see as far as we can say.” Or, while I’m quoting, consider Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano’s line: “We are the words that tell who we are.” Choices and arrangements of words translate us to the world and the world to us—but, sad to say, rarely in ways that stimulate anyone. Thus my zone of interest: Verbal expression rising to “expressiveness,” which I’ve defined as “an onslaught of stimulation that seizes and engages an audience” (The Elements of Expression: Putting Thoughts into Words).

What do you think is your unique contribution to the English language?

There no longer is any “unique” in the writing-advice game. The ancient and classical rhetoricians identified the elements of forceful and stylish expression, named them in figures of speech, taught them with vigor and even occasional wit. My best contribution might be the genial restatement of such elements, written with a characteristic blend of high and funky diction, practicality and shtick, with abundant examples from diverse and often unlikely modern sources. I offer a certain liberation from convention for the sake of expressiveness and try to show how it’s done. It’s hardly a unique approach overall, but mine is the only one that makes me laugh.

What kinds of people were you hoping to attract with your numerous books, literary columns and articles? Has that changed with time?

Funny, the question reminds me of what my late uncle, a hotshot California lawyer, used to ask when I’d tell him of a writing project: “What the hell kind of people read books about words?”

The hopes began modestly. My first (clean) book, a journalistic report on libraries around the nation, targeted a gung-ho new generation of librarians. My second sought to share, with other bewildered publication editors, what I’d learned on various jobs; but writers, too, found something in it—maybe how to understand nutso editors. Now, with some experience as an author, I wanted to speak to “aspiring writers, writers in crisis, and writers metamorphosing from unpublished larvae to pupae-in print . . . to gentle dabblers and muscled pros . . . to writers skewered on the stakes of failure.” (The Elements of Authorship.)

What I write often stems from my own fumbling efforts to comprehend a subject, so I’ve reached out to aspirants at point zero as well as seasoned specialists. All my books recapitulate journeys of learning or discovery to some extent. Sharing my own vertigo as a beginning editor, for example, I confessed that “I cannot remember most grammatical terms from one day to the next,” adding Woody Allenishly that maybe “a few—such as ‘mutation plural’ and ‘loose apposition’ might be worth holding on to.” (Elements of Editing.) My own path would be to develop an ear for “educated” patterns through reading, listening, and practice, while keeping a battalion of reference tools at hand for the lollapaloozas.

What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment in the world of language/grammar?

Great for whom? I believe I greatly improved my own prose by researching and sweating through the language advice I offered in, say, The Writer columns and the popular book they spawned: Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style. Have I helped other writers? I hope so. Would you believe me if I said, “Easing even one language user’s path toward expressiveness would be as great an accomplishment as I could desire”? Nah. But I have claimed to have lighted the path by going beyond the good lessons of Strunk and White (The Elements of Style)—a risky assertion, sacrilegious to many, and I’ve caught some flak for it. Still, I felt that in today’s environment of sensory overload and attention deficit, of cacophonous, brain-juddering distractions from the well tempered word, a competitive style called for “rock-solid command of language, yes, but also aggressiveness, surprise, exuberance, responsiveness, intensity, rebelliousness—most of which White seemed to disdain, except in his own prose.”

Why should anyone be more interested in linguistics/grammar?

Because even a glimpse of language dynamics is an awakening, a fresh perspective on right, wrong, and the immense interplay of forces shaping every utterance from pillow talk to Presidential pronouncements. Within linguistics and grammar lie the genetic codes and evolutionary charts of language, revealing its organic nature and how it reflects human anatomy (of speech), historical development and behavior—status, choices, reason, migration, commerce, politics, and probably sex, too.

Grammar is in one sense the craft of putting together a sentence, logically and clearly, all parts in synch, as the society’s most respected word people would do and as almost anyone needs to do to make it in the literate world. It can be messed with for effect. It intertwines with usage. It can be debated. Language liberals (“anarchists!”) and conservatives (“sticklers!”) rumble over its fine points and inconsistencies. And it can be misused as a curmudgeonly measure of “correctness” or in snobbery that scares off the multitudes with talk of “proper” English. If none of that sounds compelling, then what accounts for the daily emotional outbursts over grammatical issues, including perennials ones like “who vs. whom”? (For example, )

If you could change the way people speak or write what would you suggest? Why does it matter?

By God, I would suggest they stop using the same few stale words (“great,” “awesome,” “amazing,” and “incredible”) to describe everything in the universe or celebrate anything more exceptional than cornflakes. And, oh, how I’ve tried to encourage that change, offering some six thousand alternative terms in Better Than Great: A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives and, in spite of my ambiversion, marching forth to preach the gospel of expressive praise.

When we default to a few weary terms and a “Like” on Facebook to convey our values, we convey nothing, excite no one, influence zilch. We forfeit the infinite riches of a language and all its possibilities, including the fun of verbal inventiveness. For communications beyond the most casual, then, I would have people take a risk with fresh and surprising language; try making the world a more stimulating place the next time they describe an inspiriting, epiphanic, wig-walloping adventure, or a toothsome, eupeptic, slaverworthy hunk of pie.

What are the three most critical errors made most often?

I haven’t kept count, but three sneaky ones that come to mind are dangling participles, faulty punctuation of non-restrictive clauses, and—including in my own sentences—confusion over the subjunctive. Forgive the dip into grammatical nomenclature; you know the obvious patterns: Dangling: Cut into quarters and spread with mayonnaise, Nigel eyed the cucumber sandwiches before devouring them. Missing non-restrictive commas: Apparently the new head chef who’d come highly recommended had poisoned the mayo. Unnecessary subjunctive: If Nigel were suspicious, why did he wolf the entire platter?

Technically faulty English all three, but are they critically bad? Two of them might be considered fine points: A restrictive/nonrestrictive choice often turns on a slight distinction; the subjunctive case is so nuanced it’s fading from use. As for danglers, they fail in logic and can be howlers, but less obvious ones (like “Born in London, Nigel’s final resting place will be . . .) are found so often in respected media they’ve become almost idiomatic. As always, your choices boil down to the precise meanings you want to convey to an intended audience, whether it’s street cred to the homies, yo, or homage to the Wüsthof-sharp intelligence of Grammarist readers. Ain’t it cwazy fun?

Anything else?
[Nope. Enough Plotnik.]