Michael Erard | Reviews

The Elements – Molecules, Atoms and Quarks – of Style

Cover of the book Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little by Christopher Johnson (W. W. Norton & Company, 2011)

Using friendly lessons from linguistics, Chris Johnson gives advice about how to structure good micromessages in his book, Microstyle. These micromessages range from metaphors to names to one-liners to words. For each micro-genre, Johnson talks helpfully about what works and why, and in other sections describes the rhythms and patterns of sound, meaning, and orthography that shape micromessages that work. But Johnson's book is much more than a writing how-to.

1. Early in Microstyle, Johnson quotes William Gibson: "The future is already here — it's just unevenly distributed." So has the "era of the micromessage," Johnson writes, extant in jokes and song lyrics, witticisms and telegrams. Now everyone's getting into the game, competing in the shrinking attention economy.

Come to think of it, Johnson, who lives in Seattle, has channeled some Pacific Northwest futuristic vibe here. In Gibson's novel, Pattern Recognition, main character Cayce Pollard has histamine reactions to any sort of brand marking or labels; famously, she wears jeans with no tags and sands the logo from her watch.

You might interpret Microstyle as the book that Pollard might have read to try to understand her allergies, because the book is a map of the crypto-sublime iceberg that language has become. In the English classes of the future, children will not try their hands at haiku or sonnets; they will, instead, create brand names for a suite of imaginary products. Johnson's book will be in their teachers' bookcase.

2. Microstyle is a manifesto for Occupy Language or Occupy English. "We need to think differently about language, grammar, and style," Johnson writes, and that amounts to a new front in linguists' long-running war against the social mechanics of linguistic standardization. These mechanics and standardizers — otherwise known as "prescriptivists" — work in classrooms; they write dictionaries; they write newspaper columns; they tweet their latest language pet peeves. Johnson calls this "Big Style."

The thing is, Big Style can't squeeze its dictats into the micro-realmsof the micromessage. Microstyle represents an entirely new battlefield. Nothing in The Elements of Style — to take one of the prescriptivist scriptures — says anything about how to squeeze meaning into a 140-character window, or why "Twiffle" might be a good name for a soy-based cookie for dieters. Why? Because prescriptive approaches to grammar are wedded to the form of the sentence. Big Style can venture into words but only tell you about the original meanings of old words, not the meanings proposed by new words. Linguistics, on the other hand, keeps telling you how smaller and smaller units and moments of spoken and written language work. As a science, that's what it's designed to do.

3. Microstyle isn't a manifesto for Occupy English. One reason is that the actual economic powers maintain Big style as a front, but they already know how to wield microstyle quite well, thank you. Come to think of it, English doesn’t need Occupy English. Every language already contains all of its modes of resistance.

4. Most guides on writing are written by highly literate vocational writers, who circulate in a world filled with books, articles and other things to read and write. This makes them a very poor match for knowing much about the practical world of written language where everyone else resides, and where literary genres comprise only a small part of the writing that mature working writers do. They're like carnivores writing cookbooks for vegetarians.

Johnson, a highly literate writer, happens to be looking out for the interests of accidental writers. These are the writers who set out on a certain path and find, to their surprise, that it requires literacies of specialized kinds. The cop who finds himself writing up reports. The designer inventing logos for companies and names for products and slogans for campaigns. Anyone born in the last half of the 20th century who set out to live a life and found that it involves narrowcasting in 140 characters.

If micromessages are seeds planted in heads, then contemporary writers have to be biotechnologists of the word: people who know how seeds grow, into what, and how fast. This kind of lexical and semantic engineering is hard enough for vocational writers; for accidental writers, Microstyle may be the best starting place I've seen.

5. Microstyle is also a tour by the billboards and drawingboards of America's image making industry, which are strewn with failed attempts to make sense. Take the way that sound symbolism — the mental associations that we have between particular sounds and certain feelings or other aspects of the world — structures English words and names. "It can add an ineffable richness to a miniature message," Johnson writes. (John Colapinto described some of Lexicon Branding's approach to this in an October 3 New Yorker article; Johnson once worked there.) One name that Johnson considers to have failed is the word blend Syncplicity, the name of a file synchronization software, which has a "horrible knot of consonants between the first two syllables" that makes the name "far from seamless and flowing." Linguistics provides the technical vocabulary (consonants, syllables) for talking about what works and what doesn't.

6. Microstyle is also an opening for another book. Johnson uses linguistics to tell us what messages "work," but he tells us little that’s very useful about how messages that "work" see the light of day. Or, for that matter, how messages that don't work see the light of day. In order to do that you need anthropology, or journalism. We need a Soul of the New Machine (Tracy Kidder's book about the design of a new computer) about a branding and naming project in order to see what social engineering has to accompany the verbal engineering.

Or to put it in a proverb: Seeds contain all the bounty in the world, but they must be guided by the hand to the field.

Posted in: Books, Technology, Typography

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