The Art of the Ear

Posted: Mar 20, 2006 8:51 AM

Is "woken" a legitimate verb? We're talking style today, so stick around. The question came last week from George Woodward of Berlin, Conn. He enclosed a clipping about a fellow who is regularly "woken up by garbage trucks." He asked: Should an editor have changed it to read, "awakened by garbage trucks"?

The answer lies in a writer's ear. "Woken" is indeed a legitimate alternative to the more popular "awakened." The thing is, we read with our ears as well as our eyes. What does your ear tell you? I believe an editor with a lively sense of style would leave the sentence alone.

Let's go to the dictionaries. They uniformly define "style," in the literary sense, as "a manner or mode of expression in language." It is "a characteristic way of using words." The examples given are "Faulkner's style" and "Hemingway's style." The same instantly identifiable factors figure in the style of Bach or Chopin, the style of Rembrandt or Picasso.

One element of style in prose composition is cadence. It is a subtle element. Like garlic, it can easily be overdone. Employed judiciously, a touch of cadence can improve a pedestrian sauce. To my ear, "are WOK-en UP by GAR-bage TRUCKS" has a nice iambic beat. It is better than "are a-WAK-ened by garbage trucks," a recasting that does not fall trippingly from the tongue.

Note that in "woken up," the "up" is not redundant. It helps the swing of the sentence. Some editors worry too much about "redundant" words. The other day columnist David Broder wrote of legislators who "cobbled together a $148 million fix." To cobble, by definition, is to "put together roughly or hastily." A reader wrote to ask if the amplifying "together" was necessary. Of course it was necessary! We ought not to encourage prolixity, of course, but we ought to wonder if 92 percent of our readers readily locked onto "cobble."

This is not to suggest that all such helpful supplements are useful. Take "rather." The late E.B. White, God rest him, lumped "rather" with "very," "little" and "pretty" as leeches that "infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words." Let me ask if you would have kept the "rather" in these examples:

  • From USA Today, in a column by Craig Wilson about the vulgarities expressed by political figures: "To be honest, I found these incidents rather refreshing."

  • From a lawyer's motion for a jury trial in Nebraska: "By using rather germane accounting tricks to inflate the company's income, the defendant could ..."

  • From an editorial in The New York Times: "Mr. Kean told a rather depressing anecdote about how the White House had reacted ..."

    In each instance, I believe, the "rather" could profitably have been deleted. It's a judgment call. Writers and editors must make them all the time. In a piece in the Times in December about morning news on television, reporter Bill Carter noted that "Last week, 'Today' somewhat quietly marked the achievement of an improbable feat." After an amplifying paragraph, he continued: "One reason the feat was initially observed somewhat modestly was a bit of uncertainty ..." (Italics supplied.)

    What is your feeling about "somewhat?" Leave it in? Cut it out? The first "somewhat" was redundant. Out with it! The second "somewhat" worked. It amplified and echoed "a bit of uncertainty." Moreover, it prevented "initially" from unpleasantly tail-gating "modestly." It just sounded better. Cadence counts. Your ear will tell you so.