10/24/13

Words, words, words


Elements of StyleWriting before the arrival of the internet*, Bob Blackburn commented on the nature of exchange on then-prevalent BBS (Bulletin Board Systems), words that could as easily be written today about the internet:

“…the BBS medium reveals not only a widespread inability to use English as a means of communication but also a widespread ignorance of that inability, and, in consequence, a lack of interest in doing anything about it.”

Words that were prescient. As if he could foresee Facebook. Blackburn also wrote that most people thought they spoke and wrote well…

“The majority of English-speaking people I’ve come across…think they already know it. After all, it’s their native tongue, and they’ve been to school.”

Which is, for most of us, a fallacy. Language, like any skill, needs training, practice, experience and reminders. Yes, we have an innate  sense of grammar from an early age, encoded in our genes, but it is rudimentary and needs refinement.

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that children as young as 2 understand basic grammar rules when they first learn to speak and are not simply imitating adults.

Like our muscles, our ability to speak and write develops with use. But it does not develop with haphazard, unfocused usage. Just visit some of the many sites that illustrate the grammatical nightmares found on social media sites like Facebook. While these are good for a chuckle, they reflect a greater problem with education and learning.

Anyone who attempts to correct the written wrongdoings online is labelled a “grammar Nazi” (or more often, a “grammer nazi”). As if writing poorly is some protected, constitutional right. The term has been adopted by some of the practitioners themselves. I sometimes count myself among their company, although I do not belong to any of their organizations.

Still, like Lynn Truss, I bridle at the egregious mistakes in grammar, punctuation and spelling I find online (not everyone likes her, by the way, but her book is great fun to read). And yes, sometimes I am prone to comment thereon. That may be an automatic response, according to a recent study:

Your brain often works on autopilot when it comes to grammar. That theory has been around for years, but University of Oregon neuroscientists have captured elusive hard evidence that people indeed detect and process grammatical errors with no awareness of doing so.

This week, I began again what used to be an annual activity for me – back when I was working in the media or in publishing – rereading the classic work, The Elements of Style. I felt my metaphorical red pencil was in need of a sharpening.

It’s a small book – the fourth edition is just over 100 pages, including the afterword, glossary, and index. At a chapter a day, it can be easily read in less than a week, even by people who don’t read quickly. It encapsulates a mere 22 basic rules of style. Rule 19, for example, states: “Omit needless words.” It follows with this:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Who can argue with that? Ron Sudol, Professor of Rhetoric at Oakland University, comments on this:

Strunk’s attitude toward style is that English is more beautiful the more direct and spare it is. As White notes in the introduction, “for sheer pith I think it probably sets a record that is not likely to be broken.” The students at Cornell in 1919 were probably more wordy and pretentious than students today, whose writing is more often underdeveloped and oversimple. Nevertheless, the lessons — and that’s exactly the right word for the direct orders issued by Strunk and White — are eternally valuable to anyone who wants to take writing seriously. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject. Put statements in positive form. Use the active voice. Omit needless words. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

TEOS sits, almost hidden, in a bookshelf packed with many books on grammar, style, writing, punctuation and communication. They range from the whimsical works of Richard Lederer to the dense, academic Chicago Manual of Style. Most of the rest I read sporadically and randomly. Some – like Safire and Lederer – I read more for entertainment and amusement. Others I read to keep my writing sharp, like the periodic honing of the knives in my kitchen drawers.

Strunk & White alone of all my style and grammar books I read cover to cover because, for me, it is the quintessential book, the source from which all the others derive. And its short little rules are like little jabs; pointed reminders to pay attention.

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