Hey all, Ernie here with a piece from Andrew Egan, in which he takes a stab at explaining why so many of Aaron Sorkin’s characters are grammar nerds.
Today in Tedium: Writing is hard. Writing believable characters is harder. For poor screenwriters dealing with time constraints, the work is more complicated. It’s lucky that writers are lazy so any number of quick characterization techniques (or tropes) have developed over the years. Need to quickly establish that a character is physically fit and socially isolated? Have them run alone for a few seconds in a scenic location. Need a special-forces badass? Have them go into their secret cache of weapons or show them disassembling and reassembling a gun. Need to establish a character as smart? Chess, Rubik’s cubes, or math equations. Take your pick. However, it’s with this last point that one of the 21st century’s most prolific screenwriters has decided to add his own twist. Today’s Tedium is talking about one of writing’s sacred texts, and how Aaron Sorkin uses it to make his characters the smartest in the room. — Andrew @ Tedium
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“There is little or no detectable bullshit in that book. (Of course, it’s short; at eighty-five pages it’s much shorter than this one.) I’ll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style. Rule 17 in the chapter titled Principles of Composition is ‘Omit needless words.’ I will try to do that …”
— Stephen King in his autobiographical guide to writing, simply titled On Writing. King’s book has become a modern favorite of aspiring writers but his reverence for an earlier work is clear. The Elements of Style, written by Professor William Strunk Jr. of Cornell University, is probably the most influential writing guide in American letters, especially after a former student-turned-children’s-author helped make it a classic. That student would be E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web.
Do you really need a copy of The Elements of Style?
Yes. You need one if you write in the English language, even more so if you’re an American. To eschew the advice in The Elements of Style in an effective way is to do so deliberately. Jackson Pollock could paint you a realistic portrait. He chose not to. The Elements of Style lays out the fundamentals of writing while evangelizing clarity of language as the cleanest method for understanding ideas. Follow its advice, you get a portrait. Skip it and you get something in the abstract.
So what’s in The Elements of Style? Well, like Stephen King noted, it’s a small book. Don’t think about those inaccessible grammar guides distributed in school. Its advice is meant to build upon a basic understanding of English. It’s more about rhetoric and clarifying language. Sections of the book include , “Rules of Usage” and “Elementary Principles of Composition”, along with additional advice like “Commonly Misspelled Words” that have become less useful in a digital era.
“Elementary Principles of Composition” advice on paragraph usage and structure is solid for anyone, let alone aspiring professional writers. If you need an authoritative guide to “affect” vs “effect” or when to use an Oxford comma. Strunk and White covered it.
But a work like The Elements of Style is rife for potential abuse. Not so much using its advice to break the rules as giving grammar snobs ammunition for their pedantry.
And in the case of The Trial of the Chicago Seven, I present the primary defendant: Aaron Benjamin Sorkin.
Using grammar and semantics for more than clarity
Before we get to the sins of Sorkin, I feel it necessary to point out one of the funniest grammar jokes in modern history. And no, Aaron Sorkin has nothing to do with it. Instead, we have to go to ’90s and ’00s slapstick grossout kings of comedy, the Farrelly Brothers. Specifically their modern take on the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story, Me, Myself, and Irene.
The main character, played by Jim Carrey, suffers from multiple personality disorder giving plenty of chances for low brow antics and silly sight gags. But the perspective of referring to multiple people inhabiting the same body created one hilarious grammar/semantic opportunity. Hop about a minute into this clip below:
Yes, yes, he did just refer to himself in the fourth person. Which isn’t technically possible, but they just did it. In doing so, they gave a grammatical category to the perspective of the whiner, criticizing criticism against them. Americans (and plenty of others) will be all too familiar with it of late.
For the legitimate criticism against the Farrelly Brothers’ movies, using grammar to make a joke isn’t something I’ve seen too often. I have seen Aaron Sorkin attempt it.
In the second season episode of Sorkin’s beloved political fantasy, The West Wing, ace speechwriter Sam Seabourne dresses down a peer from NASA for his grammatical and semantic deficiencies.
Scott Tate, NASA Public Affairs: Look, I don’t want to step on your toes. You don’t want to step on mine. We’re both writers.
Sam Seabourne: Yes, I suppose, if we broaden the definition to those who can spell.
Zing, Sam. Oh, and it doesn’t stop there. When the notoriously intellectual President Bartlett and other members of the staff attempt to read the NASA guy’s speech, they also decide to jump in on the “fun”.
President Bartlett: Who wrote this intro?
Scott Tate, NASA Public Affairs (proudly): I did, sir. I’m Scott Tate from NASA Public Affairs.
President Bartlett (while shaking Tate’s hand): Scott, “unique” means one of a kind. Something can’t be very unique nor can it be extremely historic.
CJ Craig, White House Press Secretary (chiming in): While we’re at it, do we have to use the word “live” twice in the first two sentences like we just cracked the technology?
Scott Tate, NASA Public Affairs: Look-
CJ Craig, White House Press Secretary: We’re also broadcasting in living color, right?
Ouch. Scott Tate had a bad day at the office. He was dunked on by two senior White House officials and the President of the United States. It actually gets worse for the poor guy too cause he’s never seen again. Sorkin introduces this character to embarrass his basic understanding of his own job and discards him. Banter about speechwriting and word choice are common on The West Wing, unfortunately so was unnecessary intellectual flexing.
Still, this isn’t even my favorite Sorkin grammar go-to. That honor goes to the “Sorkin style callout”. This is a moment when an Aaron Sorkin character points out the specific grammar choices an individual makes that crafts their writing or speech in a particular way. Oddly specific, no?
A style callout ends up being one of the (many) climactic moments in Sorkin’s latest, The Trial of the Chicago 7. (AGAIN SPOILERS) Just as some incriminating evidence is discovered, potentially dooming the protest leaders at the heart of the trial, main protagonists Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman finally have a moment of shared understanding.
Tom Hayden: Our…
Tom Hayden: Our… our blood.
Abbie Hoffman (laughs): “Our blood.” “If our blood is going to flow…” You meant to say, “If our blood is gonna flow, then let it flow all over the city.” You didn’t mean the cops! You were saying, “If they’re gonna beat us up, everyone should see it.”
Lawyer (incredulously): Jesus Christ…
Abbie Hoffman: You do this… He does this, it’s a pattern. Read his portion of the Port Huron Statement. He implies possessive pronouns and uses vague noun modifiers.
Tom Hayden (meekly): You read the Port Huron Statement?
Abbie Hoffman: Yeah, I’ve read everything you’ve published.
Tom Hayden (meekly): I didn’t know that.
Abbie Hoffman: You’re a talented guy. Except for the possessive pronouns…
Tom Hayden (interrupting): I know.
Abbie Hoffman (continuing): And the vague noun modifiers.
And just like that, we the audience understand how underestimated Abbie Hoffman was throughout. The biggest hint should have been that Sacha Baron Cohen agreed to do the role in an Aaron Sorkin vehicle, someone had to be the grammar genius. Why not the Cambridge-educated provocateur?
For as much as it seems like I’m harping on Sorkin, this is a great moment in a solid film. But to get a real sense of just how far the Sorkin style call out goes, we have to attack a character near and dear to my heart.
“Aaron heard what they were doing to Toby and he wrote me one of the most beautiful emails I’ve ever gotten about my work. He said, ‘Toby is my favorite character I’ve ever written and I’ve loved working with you on the character.’ He went on to describe how much he loved Toby and why, and it made me cry because it was just really beautiful.”
— Actor Richard Schiff, who played Toby Ziegler on The West Wing, in an oral history on Empire. Beyond the creator’s favorite, Toby quickly endeared himself to fans as the idealistic Eeyore of the West Wing staff. He’s hopeful people will do the right thing but never especially expects anyone but him to do it. In the show’s final season—years after Sorkin left after season 4—they did Toby dirty.
The Godfather of grammar
The sheer volume of grammatical barbs in which Toby engages during his West Wing run is impressive. As the White House Communications Director, he was directly involved with the speeches that announced the President’s policies. Words matter to Toby and he took his work seriously. His reasoning was respect for the job but also that he never thought he’d get this chance.
Toby Ziegler is the guy you want in government who will never get that shot. Bernie Sanders without a Senate seat and before the Internet knew about him. Toby is a perennial loser, having lost every campaign associated with him until Bartlet pulls an upset. With a failed career at his back, Toby embraces the last refuge of the righteous in Sorkin’s universe: grammar.
Never one to suffer fools, even if they were talented friends, Toby eviscerates to elevate himself. Here’s a quick example:
Toby Ziegler: Sam, you’re going to come to a verb soon, right?
Sam Seabourne: Okay, you know what this is called?
Toby Ziegler: Bad writing?
Sam Seabourne: Imagery.
Toby Ziegler: Well, you say potato…
And another pithy example:
Toby Ziegler: “…but a promise for all generations to follow.” Sir, I’ve read it twice, and I don’t even know where you stand on affirmative action.
President Bartlet: Yeah. I was trying to avoid a quote.
Toby Ziegler: As well as nouns and pronouns.
To his credit, when Toby mucks about with grammar it’s in the context of speechwriting. He also wasn’t there for the NASA public affairs castigation. Toby’s version of Sorkin style callout tends to be in the moment, when he knows people are attempting to avoid the necessary. Which is very much part of the character’s persona. Toby pushes people to be better versions of themselves. Sometimes that mechanism is grammar.
Aaron Sorkin uses grammar as a tool, which should be obvious for a writer. Amazingly, he’s added some extra nuance. If it’s not already clear, I am one of Sorkin’s devout fans. No need to dress down someone who isn’t a hero. Also, I genuinely love The West Wing and am quite fond of The Trial of the Chicago 7. Versions of the “I’m smart” grammar trope pop up in a good number of Sorkin projects. His characterization of Mark Zuckerberg corrects his date’s grammar in the opening scene of The Social Network, because of course. Various characters from The Newsroom were noted for their “impeccable sense of grammar”. We could keep this going …
One critic concluded that Sorkin’s writing style “… implores the viewer to be mindful of the expressive potential of our language, and the semantic shift that can swiftly occur when one is not observant of its casual misuse.”
Which brings us back to The Elements of Style. If Sorkin’s work implores viewers to embrace the nuances of language, Strunk and White gave us the guide.
The only knock I can give to Sorkin is that he’s not the best vehicle for evangelizing the clarity of language. He’s pretty mean about the topic.
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Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when Sorkin left The West Wing. We regret the error.