Monday, October 15, 2012

Forget about The Elements of Style

In doing a little research for this blog, I stumbled upon an NPR audio article marking the 50th anniversary of William Strunk and E.B. White’s writing handbook TheElements of Style. The article is three years old,which is about the same time the book was strongly suggested to me by one of my professors. I took his advice and bought it.

However, the article I found features Geoffrey Pullum arguing that The Elements of Style gave us a half century of “stupid grammar advice.”

Imagine my confusion had I listened to the broadcast of this radio interview the day my professor strongly suggested I buy the book. What is a student to do? And how can grammar advice be stupid? Grammar is either correct or incorrect… Right?

Evidently not! Pullum says of Strunk and White, “some of the advice is just coo coo.” He notes more specifically the controversy over the avoidance of the split infinitive, which is the placing of an adverb between to and the verb (OED). Take this example from the Oxford English Dictionary

She used to secretly admire him. (incorrect, split infinitive)

She used secretly to admire him. (correct)

“Advice to avoid this is just silly bossiness,” says Pullum. Furthering his critique, Pullum also attacks Strunk and White for creating the rule of using none (as in no one) as strictly a singular noun. As in:

None of us is

Opposed to

None of us are

What Strunk and White are doing is “giving untrue claims to students that will make them uneasy about phrases they will use… the advice is just harmful” (Pullum).

So what does Pullum suggest we do? If The Elements of Style is no longer the turn-to handbook as my professor suggested, then what is? Pullum recommends Joseph M. Williams’s Style Toward Clarity and Grace.
What Williams offers to the “lively debate” is this: “We don’t have to understand principles of grammar to write well” (1). In fact, “The best evidence suggests that students who spend a lot of time studying grammar improve their writing not one bit” (1) and in many instances they get worse (2).

Williams’ introduction isn’t the best to entice one to want to read further until he offers a new perspective on the problem. Instead of focusing on grammar and memorizing rules and advice that are stupid, “mature writers can change the way they write once they grasp a principled way of thinking about language” (2). 

The principled way is to be clear, sincere, and try to understand how “readers of modern English read”(2).  What this means to me is simply (1) be sincere, (2) read every word you have written precisely as you have written it, and (3) forget about The Elements of Style

Grammar is still worth mentioning. It cannot be forgotten altogether. However, for mature writers, grammar anxiety may be a thing of the past. 

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like you are ready for Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," which also does some myth busting.