Stout and English 101

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Stout and English 101

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Editado: Mar 29, 2008, 6:00 am

I find one aspect of Stout's writing especially fascinating... his sometimes improper use of the English language, as it applies to the way my English teachers taught standard and acceptable methods of writing. Stout is clearly well read and has an exceptional vocabulary. Yet, I think an English teacher would blast him for his use of run-on sentances. I am, by no means, criticizing his writing. I find his use of the style to be perfect and part of the reason he is so easy to read and so descriptive.

Has anyone else ever contemplated this aspect of Stout's writing?

Mar 29, 2008, 9:55 am

Yes, I've noticed it, but I forgive him for it because I think it fits with Archie's style of narrating. I think if it were Stout writing without being filtered through Archie's voice, he wouldn't have the same language-use.

However, I haven't read anything by Stout outside of the Wolfe series, so I don't know if he writes that way in other circumstances. Has anyone here read some non-Wolfe Stout?

Mar 29, 2008, 5:14 pm

I don't recall a specific problem with run-on sentences or comma-splices, but Stout is creating the voice of Archie, so he needs to walk the line between Standard Written English and representing how an educated but informal, smart but colloquial fellow like Archie would "talk" as he tells "us" his stories.

Editado: Mar 29, 2008, 5:48 pm

It's not a problem (I knew if I metioned this, I would trip myself up). It works to perfection. But from my old memory, I'm fairly certain that my English teacher would have let me have it if I turned in work with 15 commas and a semi-colon in the same paragraph. LOL

Mar 29, 2008, 8:59 pm

I fear my comment came off more brusque than intended. I should have said something more neutral like "feature." Nor did you trip yourself up. Your observation about the length of some of the sentences is interesting--I wonder if the length has something to do with how quickly Stout wrote as well as how chatty he sometimes wanted Archie to sound. Anyway: apologies for my tone. Simenon wrote even more quickly than Stout, I gather, and one symptom of that (I think) is extremely short, journalistic paragraphs.

Editado: Mar 30, 2008, 3:26 am

Your reply was fine. It's hard for me to explain exactly what I mean. I can't find the example I wanted to show (it was in one of the last 2 I've read but can't seem to find the paragraph that made me think of it). But here is a shorter example of the type of long sentances Stout uses, and uses well...

This is from page 2 in "Fer-De-Lance":

'He replied, also as he had before, that it wasn't his brain that worked, it was his lower nerve centers; and as I opened the fifth bottle for him to sample he went on to say- not the first time for that either- that he would not insult me by acknowledging my flattery, since it was sincere I was a fool and if it was calculated I was a knave.'

That's all one sentance! And you could actually get away with a couple more commas in there as well.

My first Creative Writing class took place somewhere around 1965 and my guess is that if I turned in a homework assignment with that sentance in it, I'd have gotten a few red ink notations in the margin.

Stout uses long, descriptive lines like this in many of his works. It's only when you really look for them that they become noticable. He makes them work, regardless of their length. Try writing one sentance with 70 words in it! It's not easy.

Mar 30, 2008, 6:30 am

A good example! I had to read it twice. In Wolfe defense, it was after his 4th bottle.

Mar 30, 2008, 5:38 pm


Mar 30, 2008, 6:22 pm

Every time I see the word 'contact' used as a verb or use the word 'contact' as a verb (against my own better judgment) I remember how Wolfe carries on about this usage.

We're talking about 25 years of noticing this usage and feeling guilty about using it (infrequently as I do).

I can't remember which book(s ?) this criticism is in, but it's stuck with me forever.

Mar 30, 2008, 6:39 pm

#9 - Me too! Wolfe has quite an effect. Was that in the story where he is burning the dictionary?

Sadly, my brain feels about language rules the same it does about math. It acknowledges that both are necessary and make for a better world, but refuses to memorize them. It's as though my head starts saying, "lalalalalalalalalala" when anyone tries to tell me the rules. Even myself. I think I've noticed the long sentences, but as others have said, since it is usually Archie's narration, and I know how my mind works, it never bothers me.

I've read some of Stout's other works. Not comparable to the Wolfe stories. I couldn't tell you about the grammar, but they do not engage in the same way.

Mar 30, 2008, 10:02 pm

He burned the dictionary in Gambit. The book opens with Wolfe seated in front of the (rarely used) fire, feeding the flames with Webster's New International Dictionary: 3rd edition, unabridged. The "sin" he cited was that the dictionary implied that infer and imply were interchangeable.

Wolfe rejected a client in Golden Spiders for using contact as a verb.

I have previously read that Rex Stout used his inflexibility on the use of language and grammar to reflect the static nature of his household. Very clever, but I remain unconvinced. Sadly, I have lost the reference. I can however provide a reference to an open letter to Nero Wolfe on the dictionary burning episode:

Written by Greg Smith on 12th August 2002.

Mar 30, 2008, 10:12 pm

Great example, and you're right; there should be a semi-colon after "brain that worked" and more commas. On the other hand, it gives a great sense of Archie's "patter."

Mar 31, 2008, 4:49 pm

cognito- What a fun letter! I love it. Language is a merry old go-around, isn't it?

I kind of like the idea about Stout using inflexibility to reflect the static nature of the household. Never thought about it that way before.

Jun 19, 2008, 6:13 pm

You folks have helped me put my finger on what was probably the premier influence on my own writing style. I first read all the Nero Wolfe books when I was 10 and 11, and of course, fell in love with Stout's style as well as his characters. At the time I was also heavily into H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe -- two other writers known for their lengthy sentences and abstruse vocabulary.

So it is little wonder that I tend to write lengthy, complex sentences. None of my English teachers or professors ever criticized my writing -- probably b/c I do vary my sentences. And they were usually (but not always) happy with the sesquipedalian vocabulary I use both in speaking and writing.

But I had to learn to write very simple, very short sentences, with a drastically curtailed vocabulary, when I began to write to the parents of my students.

Of course, the other thing to note about Stout's literary style is that it is deliberate -- reading his Tecumseh Fox works one can't help but notice how different the use of language is.

As I tell my own students -- those who've mastered an art can then create their own rules or impose their own stylistic preferences on the medium.

And thank God for that -- it'd be a dull world indeed to be restricted to either nothing but Hemingway's tersely spare prose or Henry James' paragraph-long sentences.

Jun 22, 2008, 12:33 pm

#14 - As I tell my own students -- those who've mastered an art can then create their own rules or impose their own stylistic preferences on the medium.

Very true. The key being to get the students to master the art first before they venture off into stylistic preferences. This applies to all art in my opinion. :)

Jun 23, 2008, 9:06 am

this is curious:

Do you mean that long sentences are no good in English?

Here in Spain the sentences in books used to be very long with a lot of commas or clauses (i don't know if this is the correct word). As longer the sentence is, better is the writter.

Any way i have readed Nero Wolfe without thinking in that... but sometimes i was lost in the sentence and i must start again :-(

Jun 23, 2008, 5:18 pm


In general, it is not really the length that makes it a good or bad sentence , but how well it communicates. Many people communicate better when they write short, simple, clear sentences, but many people find that hard to do! The idea is that once you have mastered writing in this short and straightforward way, you can move on to longer and more complex sentences, while still communicating clearly. The practice, however, falls short of the ideal for many authors.

Jun 24, 2008, 10:14 am

Still, though, if you want really long sentences, look at Charles Dickens. He wrote some whoppers, and yet he's still considered one of the greatest authors in the English language.

As for the "contact" issue, Archie mentions it as an aside to the reader in And Be a Villain (one of the clients uses it as a verb) and Wolfe brings up the subject in Black Orchids when Johnny Keems uses it, telling him that contact is not a verb under his roof.

Jun 24, 2008, 11:39 am

Thank you ninjapenguin, regarding the references for contact as a verb!

Jun 25, 2008, 7:00 pm

As an insight into Stout's writing, here are a few items from some of the introductions to books in the Rex Stout Library. The average time he took to write a book was a little over 3 weeks. He never wrote a second draft. He never wrote from an outline -- starting the books without any idea who the killer was. And according to one introduction, "his first drafts went to the printer with no need to change so much as a comma".