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.

Back when I worked on the newspaper, reading it annually was something I made sure I did every year. It started out as a New Year’s resolution, many decades ago, but drifted off course into the tide pools of life. I still read it, but without the  regularity I began with. The January resolution shuffled to March, then summer, and has now settled into fall.

Reading it regularly is a habit I picked up from better journalists than I could ever hope to be, and something I tried to pass along to reporters when I was editor. I cannot say whether my advice was heeded.

I read it when I ran my business, but with less frequency. In 2013, my business sold and in someone else’s successful hands, it’s been at least three years since I last read it through. Sure, I’ve cracked the covers, looking for a particular rule or example. But not cover to cover.

It was time, I decided this past weekend, to get back into the habit.

TEOS was first published in 1918. In subsequent years, similar books would be published by stylists like Ernest Gowers (Plain Words, 1948) and Rudolph Flesch (How to Write Plain English, 1979) and, of course, Henry Fowler (whose 1926 work, Modern English Usage, lies, heavily thumbed and well-read, in the library of every serious or professional writer; one simply has no better reference to usage, although I personally prefer the 1965 edition to Burchfield’s 1996 revision).**

TEOS is not a guide for novelists or poets. Or stylistic writers. It’s mostly a guide for business, government, official, university and legal writing. And it is not universally regarded by stylists and writers. In fact, many argue that is is downright wrong. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Geoffrey Pullum wrote,

The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students’ grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.

Ouch. And it gets worse. As a counterpoint, the Washington Post book critic, Jonathan Yardley – an admitted “Strunkaholic”- praised the book, writing:

The language takes a daily beating, often from people who, as both Strunk and White point out, are more interested in appearing elegant and erudite than in actually being so, people who believe that pompous, inaccurate language is evidence of deep thought and noble purpose. The truth is the opposite. As White writes: “Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.” As both Strunk and White were aware, this is hard advice to follow, for it is much more difficult to be concise than to be verbose. Consider, if you will, the Gettysburg Address on the one hand and the rhetoric of William Jefferson Clinton (or, to be bipartisan, George W. Bush) on the other. It is the difference between eloquence and bloviation, but as Warren Gamaliel Harding well knew, bloviation is a presidential prerogative.

As expected online, his praise drew a flurry of criticism, support and commentary across the Net. TEOS seems to generate passionate love-hate relationships, especially among professional writers and grammarians.

Jan Freeman said the book was “packed with midcentury fetishes.” Well, certainly it has its idiosyncrasies. It was first written almost a century ago, after all, and styles, tastes and media have all changed. It doesn’t mean that all of it is rubbish, just that it needs to be read with an understanding that it isn’t perfect, and it isn’t the final arbiter. But it is still very useful and practical.

D. G. Meyers writes,

The larger criticism is not that Strunk and White are prigs, but that they mistake a distinct and peculiar style, suited to a distinct and peculiar kind of writing, for the universal good. And this accounts for their book’s small impact, despite its perennial popularity. In writing, there is no universal good. There is only the distinct and peculiar. Anyone who depends upon The Elements of Style will be at best a disciple who has been taught whimsy in the name of authority, but he will never be a good writer until he removes Strunk and White from his reference shelves and consigns the “little book” to literary history.

I think a lot of the hoopla misses the point: the book is not the bible of grammar, style or usage. It’s intended audience was not the potential Jane Austens or Ernest Hemingways of the world. It was students, bureaucrats and politicians, people prone to overwrite, to pump up the verbiage with useless, wasted material. Yes there are many better books, many more accurate and academic tomes on usage and style. Most of which will remain unread except by the academics. Even such influential works as the Canadian Press Stylebook and the Associated Press Stylebook won’t get much readership outside the circle of professional journalists and reporters.

Nor it is a guidebook for developing personal style. You won’t become a novelist like Stephen King by reading this (nor will you by reading King’s own book, On Writing – becoming a novelist starts with writing fiction and, of course, novels. Even then you may never be good at it.). You may, however, pick up some good habits that improve your writing skills and make it easier to read, and clearer.

I, like many writers, have violated Strunk & White many times in the name of stylistic licence. But, I hope, I have kept to the spirit of the book, if not always to the exacting prescriptions within.

Much of TEOS is still muscular stuff for today’s media. Chapter V - An Approach to Style – has 21 reminders that will help turn mediocre reporting into tight, readable and clear prose. One example all media need to keep in mind is number 17Do not inject opinion:

Unless there is a good reason for its being there, do not inject opinion into a piece of writing. We all have opinions about almost everything, and the temptation to toss them in is great. To air one’s views gratuitously, however, is to imply that the demand for them is brisk, which may not be the case, and which, in any event, may not be relevant to the discussion. Opinions scattered indiscriminately about leave the mark of egotism on a work. Similarly, to air one’s views at an improper time may be in bad taste. If you have received a letter inviting you to speak at the dedication of a new cat hospital, and you hate cats, your reply, declining the invitation, does not necessarily have to cover the full range of your emotions. You must make it clear that you will not attend, but you do not have to let fly at cats. The writer of the letter asked a civil question; attack cats, then, only if you can do so with good humor, good taste, and in such a way that your answer will be courteous as well as responsive. Since you are out of sympathy with cats, you may quite properly give this as a reason for not appearing at the dedicatory ceremonies of a cat hospital. But bear in mind that your opinion of cats was not sought, only your services as a speaker. Try to keep things straight.

My point is that TEOS is short, clear and readable by pretty much everyone. It’s a far better springboard to proper language use than the much more comprehensive Chicago Manual of Style simply because it’s more readable and you can hold it up in bed easily when you retire to read an hour before lights out.

And re-read it, I shall. And so should you, if you have any aspirations to writing clearly and competently.***


* Words Fail Us: Good English and Other Lost Causes, Bob Blackburn, M&S Press, Toronto, 1993. A great book for logophiles.

** While it is available online as a free PDF download, the 1918 edition is not the best choice for learning. White’s revision, from 1959, is significantly better, but Angell’s 2000 fourth edition is best. A lot of the criticism of TEOS is aimed at earlier editions. Angell does correct some of them. You can even find independent revisions of TEOS online, like this one.

*** Should you get a taste for more, check out Reader Over Your Shoulder by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, and Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams. Or course Truss’s grumpy book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, is terrific fun to read. Yes, I do read style and grammar books for fun, even in bed. I have a passion for language, grammar and all that, regardless of my own pedestrian style.