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Books and Authors

March 10, 2019

In my PhD studies (many years ago now), I was privileged to be supervised by Eldon J. Epp.  And one of the advantages was his meticulous concern for correct grammar.  So, e.g., I was made to note that “data” is a plural noun, requiring, thus, a plural verb.

I recall also that Epp corrected my early statements about an essay or my thesis “arguing” this or that.  He rightly noted (in his many notes) that authors argue things, not texts; authors seek or show things, not texts.  Texts are inanimate things, the expressions of their authors.  I have been reminded of these corrections over the years as it seems to me that it has become now more common to run across sentences, even in academic works, such as “This book seeks to show/answer/question, etc.”  A book can’t “seek” anything.  It just sits there to be taken up and read.  Its author sought to do this or that, and the book is the result of that effort.  So, as Epp corrected me, such a sentence would sound better as “In this book I seek to show/answer/correct, etc.”

Yeah, I know it may well be regarded by some as a pedantic point.  And, yes, I’m an old fart and there is the danger of the elderly complaining.  But I learned some things from Epp, and I’m reluctant to surrender them.

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  1. A book cannot “seek” to do something (I’m with you on that), but it can “show” something, and it can “argue something”. Neither “show” nor “argue” imply intention, so they can be done by inanimate things. A map shows a road. Or would you rather we say, “a person shows a representation of a road using the medium of a map”? Nobody says that, and nor should they. The expression “the article argues that…” is both brief and clear. What more do we need from language, other than brevity and clarity?

    • I don’t find it clear to use a colloquialism such as “this article argues”. It’s the author doing the arguing. A map displays a representation of something. It doesn’t argue, or aim or contend or such.

  2. I would like this twice if I could.

  3. Most of us are grateful for wise mentors to helped us along our way, even after graduation. Mine was Hugh Anderson who was able to point out flaws without destroying the one who made them. Bless those who had considerable patience with some slow learners. I’ve also learned much from Eldon Epp over many years now, not in university, but in the academy to which we belong.

  4. Mark A Matson permalink

    You touched a nerve.

    I just got through grading a bunch of UG papers. I had given explicit instructions in a little compilation called “writing expectations” to cite authors (including for entries in academic dictionaries, which I send students to often at this level), yet the vast number of papers still referred either to editors of volumes or simply the book. My running comment is that a collection or volume does not write anything, a person does. Credit the person, the author. I hope it helps them see this writing process as a conversation.

  5. Nicholas Anderson permalink

    Professor Hutardo, you’re certainly not an old fart. I have read and profited enormously from your recommendation of Frey’s “Theology and History in the Fourth Gospel, to name but one book I might never have come across otherwise.

  6. Mike Koncsics permalink

    There are several occurrences in the NT of the phrase “scripture says.”

  7. Muttering Pilgrim permalink

    Being an “old fart” myself I enjoyed a chuckle from the Author.

  8. I have often been frustrated by language that I saw first in administrative board meetings, _vi&._, “I’d like to speak to that point”, or “I’d like to speak to that issue”; it always seemed to me like a cowardly way of making it seem like one was offering a contribution to a fund of knowledge while also offering as a prophylactic of sorts against any person-to-person contact (since, of course, the speaker was not speaking _to_ an idea or a statement, but to _us_!).

    It’s like so many neologisms: “gifting” at least has the semantic gain of calling one’s attention from the agent of the giving or the recipient of the same to the object itself in the transition; if one “references” something, however, one is simply using a noun for a verb, with no gain, probably because it sounds bureaucratic and authoritative. Same as “this book seeks to show”; it’s bureaucratic speak.

    You may be shoveling shit against the tide, but there are others shoveling with you, like me — and I’m probably at least 30-40 years your junior. Don’t abandon the effort through some Utilitarian rubric of outcomes! Sloppy thinking starts with sloppy language, as my dad always said, so clarifying our language, and exhorting others to do the same, is hardly a waste.

  9. Richard Bauckham permalink

    “This book seeks to show …” could be regarded as an instance of metonymy!

    • You’re very kind, Richard!

      • I think one has also to into account different academic sub-cultures … so in a German context, the “Ich” is still mostly avoided at all costs (making use of figurative language almost inevitable) – unless the author is a very senior scholar.

      • It was also the case in English academic writing that one avoided the first person pronoun. So, we would see “the present author contends” etc. Or “it is the author’s contention that”. But nowadays, first person writing is acceptable in English.

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