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The New Yorker (March 20) carries an interesting story about the writing style of Time magazine posted by Calvin Trillin who worked for Time magazine as a ‘floater’ and editor in 60s under the title, “Time Edit.”

There is the following statement:

Writers at Time paid a sort of homage to those leftover tics by using phrases like “short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump.” It was largely because of the constant pressure to compress that Time prose struck me as more difficult to write than to parody. A common complaint then among Time writers who found themselves stuck on a story was “this story just won’t write”—as if the story had a will of its own and was using it to resist being shaped into a coherent narrative. I may have used the phrase from time to time myself. The problem was mostly space.

I don’t understand what “This story just won’t write “mean. I feel like agreeing with 'This story tells ....," but can the story write a story by itself? What does it mean?

The author explains that Time writers used this expression ‘from time to time’ because of space constraint, by admitting by himself "it looks like as if the story has a will of its own," and "the problem was space (constraint)."

However, is the expression,“This story just won’t write” grammatically right? Does it make sense to most native English speakers, or is considered good Time-style English?

If this is just a usual expression both grammatically and rhetorically, why the author should have picked up this particular episode in explaining Time’s writing style and its obsession to space, which seems to be rather wasting space to me?

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It's an odd-seeming but not unusual twisting of actor and verb. It kind of means that the story refuses to be written, but it's more and less than that—more reflexive, less reflective. Compare it to the old Campbell's Soup ad slogan: "The soup that eats like a meal." Obviously soup can't eat: soup is eaten. Likewise stories can't write: they are written. But when stated this way the object gets personified, given a will and the ability to act. Easier to be frustrated at the obstinacy of a person than an inanimate thing. –  Robusto Mar 21 '13 at 1:24
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To answer your other questions: it is deliberately non-standard and somewhat colloquial. And I would guess that most Americans, at least, would understand it, although the curious phrasing would cause them to turn it over and over in their minds. –  Robusto Mar 21 '13 at 1:27
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No @Kris: doors opening are normal events; stories writing are not. –  tchrist Mar 21 '13 at 10:05
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@tchrist However, stories not writing is an everyday event for writers. –  StoneyB Mar 21 '13 at 11:19
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You might enjoy earlier questions involving ergativity. –  StoneyB Mar 21 '13 at 11:23

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Section IV of the OED2’s write (verb) entry is labelled “intr. for pass.” (so intransitive for passive), and contains this sense and citation:

27b. To be penned or written.

  • 1862 O. Cockayne St. Marher. (1866) p. v, — The manuscripts..write straight away from end to end of the ruled lines.

I believe that covers your case, either in the passive or maybe even the reflexive:

  • This story just won’t be written.
  • This story just won’t get written.
  • This story just won’t write itself.

Like Rob, I feel this is a somewhat informal even casual sense. But it is certainly contemporary.

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The technical term for this is the middle construction. –  RegDwigнt Mar 26 '13 at 19:36

'to write' is normally a transitive action. That is, an actor/agent performs the action of writing, and the written object is acted upon. A story is therefore the thing being written by the author.

It a strange poetic/figurative turn of phrase to treat the story itself as the actor, forgetting the author entirely. It sounds 'off' at first hearing. It should not be taken as an everyday usage that generalizes. But then it is not an idiomatic grammatical construction, rather just a clever turnaround.

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I think not so poetic or strange, just highly informal. Hot pink men's work boots generally do not sell well. or The wine drinks beautifully. I suppose it is not unlike a kind of middle voice. –  Animadversor Mar 22 '13 at 23:42
    
I disagree about 'very informal'. Both your example sentences do not arise in very informal or informal circumstances. Your first is a very common intransitive usage of sell in a business (not informal) context. –  Mitch Mar 22 '13 at 23:54
    
I will change my mind about "highly informal" and say simply "informal"; I do not agree, though, that a business context cannot be informal—indeed, almost all business communication is informal, except such things as contracts and written reports in professional fields; daily oral communication in business is especially apt to be characterized by a marked informality. Perhaps we have different notions of what are the defining characteristics of informality in language? What are yours? I still am baffled by your description of the usage as poetic or figurative. Would you elaborate? –  Animadversor Mar 23 '13 at 0:36
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@RobertThornton: My justification for figurative is that the pattern, using a transitive verb intransitively, a specific instance of hyberbaton. Also, the usage here is both deliberate and articulate, neither hallmarks of informal language. This ain't "that dog won't hunt". –  Mitch Mar 23 '13 at 13:20
    
I agree with this assessment too. The meaning I extract from the sentence also gravitates toward the story itself as a writer. It actually triggers a vivid imagery as a result! –  Anurag Kalia Mar 23 '13 at 20:02

In English it is quite usual for certain verbs, such as open, to be both transitive and, at least apparently, intransitive, though really transitive and passive in meaning without an expressed agent. So we have as possibilities:

  • They open the doors every morning at seven o'clock. Here the verb is used transitively in the active voice.

  • The doors are opened by the staff every morning at seven o'clock. Here the verb is used transitively in the passive voice and an agent is mentioned.

  • The doors open every morning at seven o'clock. Here, the verb is apparently active and intransitive, but the meaning is transitive and passive, i.e, the doors are opened [by some unspecified agent] at seven o'clock. It is not possible here to specify an agent, at least not in the normal way by using a prepositional phrase beginning with by, although one could use very unnatural phrasing such as "through the instrumentality of".

  • The doors are opened every morning at seven o'clock Here the verb is used transitively in the passive voice and an agent is not mentioned, although it would be idiomatically possible to do so.

There are some verbs that are used so often as in the third example that we do not feel that there is anything unusual going on as far as usage is concerned, nor does the usage seem necessarily either informal or formal. Another such verb would be close. But other verbs, such as write and drink, are not regularly used in this way, and when they are, the slight oddness is felt, a feeling which makes the usage seem most appropriate in an informal context.

As for the last two examples, both of which have passive meaning without an agent being expressed, the former seems more common. In the latter example, in which the verb is also passive in form, the difference, perhaps, is that the action feels more vivid, so that even though an agent is not specified, his or her presence is less "ghostly" than in the immediately preceding example where the active voice is used with a passive meaning.

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[This is actually a comment on Mitch's comment just above and is too long to post as a comment. I understand that it may be deleted if this is not acceptable.]

  • Using a transitive verb intransitively is not an instance of hyperbaton (which is the correct spelling), not even according to the definition to which you link.

  • The clause beginning "that the pattern" has no verb. I presume that you meant to write "is" just before "a specific"; if not, please tell us what you meant to write.

  • Although the article in the The New Yorker might not be considered an example of strictly informal language, the quote within the article “this story just won’t write” is clearly a case of representing what writers at Time did speak or write in an informal context.

  • While deliberateness and articulateness may not be hallmarks of informal language, their presence does not exclude the possibility of informality. Indeed, sometimes writers choose deliberately an informal expression in order to be more articulate.

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You're right, it is not hyperbaton (a change in word order) rather it is a change in function of many of the words (from an expected active to an unexpected and incompletely formed passive). –  Mitch Mar 24 '13 at 2:53

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