Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Omit Needless Books

I can't be impartial on the subject of Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style." I know the book contains some good advice that has helped some people. But I find it too troubling that, through some smoke-and-mirrors marketing, this book continues to pass itself off as something it's not. (It's a century-old classroom guide for the students of one English professor -- not a list of official style rules.)

That's why I'm as irritated as an open sore in a salt marsh to report on a recent love fest for the "Elements of Style."

And it's why I make no attempt to conceal my bitterness as I say: What next? National Phrenology Fest? Leech-application Awareness Day? Cheney for President 2012?

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Joel said...

I was saddened to hear NPR sort of on the band wagon, but the piece I heard was mostly funnyish and at least somewhat backhanded in it's homage:
Who Needs A Manual To Write Real Good?But looking for what I've cited above, I found this:
Strunk, White, The Red Sox, And Professor PullumAlso, mostly honoring. But, hey, I threw in a word for you. And I thought you might less equivocally appreciate the piece it references:
50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice

June Casagrande said...

Thanks for that. Pullum has been blowing the anti-Strunk trumpet for some time. But it seems to me that none of Strunk's critics fully get it.

The problem is not that Strunk wrote a bad book or that he wrote a good book that became dated. The problem occurred when the implied "you" in "(You) omit needless words" was invisibly changed from "you my students" to "you everyone who coughed up $8 for this book but doesn't realize it doesn't apply to you (but to whom White et al say, 'Thanks for the $8')."

It's not the message. It's how the context changed the message.

June Casagrande said...

I should have added: Thanks for the mention!!

LL Blackwell said...

I feel like there is a grammar renaissance right now (this is me reading your blog and listening to the Grammar Girl podcast, so maybe I'm wrong), but both of you sing the gorgeous song of "style is what you need it to be." GG actually talked about S&W last week, and similarly emphasized the problem with people taking it as gospel rather than one option of many, when it comes to style.

I wish my HS English teacher had mentioned the optional bit. Actually, I don't feel like I had any teachers who clearly explained that style is NOT grammar and that grammar is NOT hard and fast.

June Casagrande said...

Re what they taught/should teach: I agree. Though I don't follow education, from what I hear there's not much emphasis right now this approach you're suggesting. And it does seem like it would be a good way to go.

Personally, I think college English departments, tapping the skills of the linguistics departments, should require English majors take a syntax class. I think that would go a long way toward helping the situation.

From what I hear, English departments in recent decades have taken a creativity-is-all-that-counts approach. But would helping students understand the mechanics of language really really hurt creativity? Wouldn't an English student studying, say, Hemingway benefit from knowing what a subordinate clause is?

(Again, I really should add the disclaimer that I'm sort of talking out my butt here. I don't know what's going on in education at any level. These opinions are just reactions to stuff I hear.)


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