Saturday, September 6, 2008

White Snows Another Victim

In today's Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley sings the praises of Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style."

And, once again, I'm amazed at the snow job White pulled. Basically, he took a book of instructions for students writing term papers for one teacher a century ago and marketed it as "rules" for you and me.

It's like me telling you that you can't chew gum because one of my teachers used to forbid it.

Yes, the book contains some great advice. (Just as my telling you not to chew gum would be helpful if you were on your way to a job interview.) But as I've written before, there are two problems with "The Elements of Style":

1. It contains overbroad statements that Prof. William Strunk Jr. surely knew did not apply outside his classroom.

2. It's pretty much the only book that's widely considered a style authority but is NEVER UPDATED.

If you don't think that's a problem, compare Strunk and White's "rules" on the words "healthy," "nauseous," and "like" versus "as" with any current dictionary. Compare their "rules" on forming possessives with the "Chicago Manual of Style." Or compare the original "Elements of Style" to the version that was born when White got his hands on it.

The author, Strunk, never meant this book to go public. He wrote it for his students as instruction for how to hand in their papers. (That's why the pre-White version contains references to "ruled paper" -- references White took out.) Only after Strunk's death did his former student White team up with a clever publisher to spin it into something it's not.

I'm sure White wasn't deliberately trying to pull a con. I'm sure he believed that his former teacher's "rules" were law. So the snow job goes on ...

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Joel said...

I can't help it. Every time you talk about these things, I'm reminded of fundamentalists, traditionalists and reactionaries of all flavors and in every field.

Like you, I hasten to clarify that it's not that they're evil or even altogether wrong. But it strikes me that if one loves something, one wants to see it live and grow and adapt; one would rejoice over new and creative expressions. I don't really consider it love when folks prop up a mummified corpse and bow down before it.

Your comment about Strunk's intentions are instructive and I think they have broad application. Ironically, these undying (undead?) standards were often created by folks who found themselves in situations like ours, where the then-old standards were clearly showing their age. And I think they'd be the first to tell us to drive a stake through heart of what we've so come to revere.

It's not that everything has to die. Indeed, our insistence on adhering to arcane and outdated minutiae in varying ways contributes to folks ignoring or deriding those aspects of the tradition that ought and need to continue. Inevitably--please pardon my tortured metaphor--what's needed is a crash cart to revive a failing heart, but the "loyalists" subvert and obstruct it in their zeal to preserve a favored wart.

Thank you for being one of the true standard bearers (and I mean that in marked contrast to those who have perverted the notion of standards) in this battle for the language.

June Casagrande said...

Thank you.

It just frustrates me that people don't understand the role of the book they're reading. So many people think that all language is absolute, right or wrong.

Either it's "James' book" or it's "James's book." One must be right, the other wrong. So the first one they see written as a "rule" they assume is the "right" one. And all others wrong.

I agree completely that this stuff stems from the same or a similar place as extremism/fundamentalism. "Reactionaries," as you put it. It seems to be the same impulse.

I also agree with you that the anti-change forces have some priority problems. I mean, I get e-mails so often from people who tell me that they were taught to diagram sentences in school, then in the same breath they tell me I can't start a sentence with the word "hopefully." They say they're pro grammar, but they're hurting their own case.

The knowledge required to diagram sentences is useful and helpful and important and interesting. Crap about long-since-changed word definitions is pedantry (and incorrect pedantry at that).

I think that the more people realize that there's no single authority, the more we can get past the silly fear of all the nitpicking and move toward a more academic and useful understanding of basic grammar.

But then, I just had coconut cake for dessert. So it may just be the sugar talking.

: )

Adrian Morgan said...

I've never read Strunk and White, but it always amazes me that people can say such wildly different things about it (not only opinions but also claims of fact about what is or is not in it) and still be talking about the same book.

I do reserve some scepticism for their harshest critics, because I've never actually seen any evidence that White considered the rules in the book to be law. Is there something in the book that says, "These rules are law", or do people assume he thought that because he neglects to mention that they're not? I just wonder to what extent people's opinions of the book depend on the assumptions they make about White's intentions, and whether that could apply to its critics as well as its supporters.

Terry Pratchett said, "Rules are there to make you think before you break them", and for all I know, White might be the first to agree. I just don't have any evidence either way. This wouldn't turn Strunk and White into a good book, but it would mean that a lot of its criticism is misplaced. (Especially all that flak it gets from the Language Loggers for breaking its own rules.)

In summary, while I'm persuaded that Strunk and White contains some silly advice, I'm not convinced that White is really responsible for it being treated as a fundamentalist Sacred Text.

-- Adrian

June Casagrande said...

How funny. That's basically the same thing I was saying at another's blog not a week ago:

You're right. White never said they're absolutes, BUT ...

The thing I blame White for (and for which I blame White) is the shift of object of the second person used in the book. The imperative sentences -- "Do not ..." -- addressed the implicit subject who was the student. When White got the book distributed to a general audience, the subject of the imperative sentence literally shifted. The implicit "you" in the "do not" sentences became ANYONE.

The change in audience resulted in an unintentional change in meaning.

See what I'm saying?

June Casagrande said...

Typo in my last comment. "shift of object" should be "shift of subject." That is, the implict "you" in the imperative sentences such as "(You) omit unnecessary words."

Point being that, by putting this book into a different reader's hands, White literally (but invisibly) changed the subject of some verbs. I believe the subtle difference is actually very significant.

I've read some shreds of Strunk and White, too, but never any that discussed this dynamic. The critics I've read seemed to be saying only that it's a "stupid little book" without seeming to have noticed this switcheroo, you know?

Adrian Morgan said...

The last time I discussed Strunk and White was over on HeadsUp, in response to Fev's explanation that "it's a guide for people who need to write adequately, even if they never need (or learn, or want) to write well".


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