Monday, September 8, 2008

A Grammatical Analysis of the Strunk and White Snow Job

Comments on Saturday’s blog post about Strunk and White got me thinking. Specifically, I've been thinking about the grammar behind the shift of meaning that occurred when E.B. White took William Strunk Jr.’s classroom guide and marketed it to the masses.

It has to do with the grammar of imperative sentences, that is, commands.

"Go lie down."
"Have a Coke and a smile."
"Eat 'shrooms and die."

An important difference between an imperative sentence and a delcarative sentence is that in the declarative the subject of verb is explicit: "I have a Coke and a smile," "He has a Coke and a smile," "Mike has a Coke and a smile." But when we put the verb into command form, the subject becomes implicit. Yet it's still there. It's "you."

"(You) go lie down." "(You) have a Coke and a smile." Etcetera.

Strunk's original Elements of Style was full of imperatives — imperatives that were preserved in White's version. "Omit unnecessary words" may be the most famous example, but much of the book is written in the imperative. In those sentences, the Strunk's subject was "you," by which he meant "you students."

But after Strunk died, when White and a profit-savvy publisher marketed this book to the masses, they quite literally changed the subject of the verbs — even those in the sentences they left unchanged. "You students" was invisibly changed to "you everybody."

I believe that a sentence's meaning can change based on three things: context, speaker/writer, and listener/reader.

Context: If I shout, "Fire!" that will mean something very different if I'm in a crowded theater than it would if I were duck hunting with Dick Cheney and Antonin Scalia (very different.)

Speaker/Writer: A word like "women" has a subtle difference depending on the speaker. But, subtle as it is, the difference is so huge it can make the word its own opposite. When I say "women," it's another word for "us." When a man says "women," it's another word for "them." (This, by the way, is why double-standards for racial terms are fair and valid.)

Listener/Reader: If I'm talking to a Canadian, the word "Canadian" means "you" (singular or plural). If I'm talking to an American, it means "them."

So when Strunk wrote, "Do not affect a breezy manner," he meant "You students." He did not mean "You everyone, including you 21st century writer of feature articles on gardening for the Polukaville Post."

White meant no harm. On the contrary, his motives were likely pure. He believed his late teacher's wisdom could help the masses. And it has. But it has also hurt because people don't realize that the imperatives in the book aren't universal. So people run around believing Strunk's imperatives on how to form possessives, even though those imperatives are his alone and the "Chicago Manual" and other style guides disagree.

There's lots of great wisdom in The Elements of Style. But it's useful only if it's understood as what it is: one teacher's century-old serving suggestions.

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4 comments:

Blackwell said...

Dude, in high school, we were each assigned a chapter of that tome and then were forced to present it. I will never forget the duo who got up there, drill sergeant-like, and battered "omit needless words" into our brains. Quite amusing. Despite that, S&W was never something I went to, precisely because it was meant for such a specific audience (which I didn't realize until your previous blog). Chicago (and AP, I did my BA in journalism) were just so much easier to handle and so much more in depth.

I never thought about the double-standard for racial terms in that way. But you are totally right!

June Casagrande said...

You had good instincts. I didn't. I just wish someone would have told me style matters are disputed. Oh, the stupid arguments I could have avoided.

Re racial stuff: It's similar to family stuff. I can say my father's a jerk, but that really has a different meaning than you saying my father's a jerk.

The meaning changes with the speaker.

Joel said...

The context, speaker, listener thing is astute.

Somehow it seems that it belongs in a good style guide. And especially the way that you weave it into a discussion of the imperative. It's like they're the same class of things: the "important unspoken" or something like that. Indeed, the significance of what's not said and how things not on the page affect how the page means. Actually, now I'm swimming in the implications and weird wonderings.

Looking at it (the three things), it seems obvious, but I confess that I hadn't quite thought it through as you have (especially so broadly) and hearing you articulate it made a light go on. It's nice to be an old man but still have the light go on that way. Feels young, somehow, like when the world was new and full of discovery. A nice moment.

::contented sigh::

June Casagrande said...

Thank you so much for saying so!

(I was hopin' somebody would see it that way.)

I mentioned the racial aspect in "Grammar Snobs," but never really stopped to nail down the "three things" until recently. I'm not yet sure it's just three. I's gots to think on its some more.

(The nice thing about blogging. It makes me think.)

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