Our fastidious authors

A letter to the editor in the NYT on 3/22/12:

Jhumpa Lahiri’s lovely article about how she crafts luminous stories sentence by sentence made my blood boil (“My Life’s Sentences,” Sunday Review, March 18). As I read it, I felt a rising sense of frustration for all the writers who aren’t she.

The letter-writer, Lisa Cron of Santa Monica CA, is the author of the forthcoming “Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence”. Her complaint is that Lahiri is a genius at crafting sentences but entirely disregards what is really important about writing, which is telling a gripping story. Cron’s own writing brought me up short when I came to the nominative predicative she, which struck me as awkwardly hyper-formal; I would have gone for her, or better, Jhumpa Lahiri, which not only avoids the pronoun-case issue but is also more emphatic and provides a better sentence rhythm.

MWDEU has a substantial article on it’s me (pp. 566-8) that traces the controversy back to the 18th century, with Joseph Priestley favoring the accusative on the grounds of custom and a corps of grammarians, headed by Bishop Lowth, on the side of the nominative. Both options are well attested in reputable writers, from that time till now. MWDEU concludes that

It is I tends to be used in more  formal or more stuffy situations; it’s me predominates in real and fictional speech and in a more relaxed writing style.

But there are lots of wrinkles here. English has a number of predicative constructions, and they don’t all work the same way (compare equational I’m not she/her with subject pseudocleft It was she/her who wrote the book); and the data are different for different person-number combinations (compare 1sg It is I / It’s me with 1pl It is we / It’s us and 3sg It is she / It’s her). The example from Cron is equational and 3sg, two factors that favor the accusative over the nominative, as does the informal style of Cron’s letter. She is fastidious but clunky.


One Response to “Our fastidious authors”

  1. the ridger Says:

    It’s exceptionally clunky since it’s following a plural. “A writer who is not she” is much better, though still very formal.

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