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.