Saturday, January 15, 2005

Question what you know

A reasoned treatise against Strunk & White.
The Elements of Style offers prejudiced pronouncements on a rather small number of topics, frequently unsupported, and unsupportable, by evidence. It simply isn't true that the constructions they instruct you not to use are not used by good writers. Take just one illustrative example, the advice not to use which to begin a restrictive relative clause (the kind without the commas, as in anything else which you might want). But the truth is that once E.B. White stopped pontificating and went back to writing his (excellent) books, he couldn't even follow this advice himself. or should he; it's stupid advice). You can find the beginning of his book Stuart Little on the official E.B. White website; and you can see him breaking his own rule in the second paragraph. That isn't the only such example.
Geoffrey Pullum argues that people should use Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage instead.
MWCDEU explains what actually occurs, shows you some of the evidence is, tells you what some other usage books say, and then leaves you to make your own reasoned decision. It won't tell you either that you should split infinitives, or that you shouldn't. But it will give you a number of examples of writers who do, and point out that the construction has always occurred in English literature over the last six or seven centuries, and that nearly all careful usage books today agree it is entirely grammatical, and it will then leave you to decide.

In other words it treats you like a grown-up. Strunk and White treat you like the abused 9-year-old daughter of a pair of grumpy dads ("Omit needless words, damn you! And fetch my slippers. And bring his slippers too. Now fix our supper. And don't let us hear you beginning any sentences with however"). Don't put up with the abuse.
I think there's merit to what Pullum is saying. A lot of the rules we have learned in copy editing are arbitrary, outdated or there only because of tradition.

The flip side: A lot of the rules we have learned are more style rules than grammar rules. We follow them for consistency's sake, not always because one way is better than the other.


At 3:00 AM, January 16, 2005, Blogger Phillip Blanchard said...

It's true that some of the "rules" in Strunk and White are antiquated or wrong. "Omit needless words" is not one of them.

At 12:19 PM, January 16, 2005, Blogger Bill said...

To expand on what I've already written about "Omit needless words," it depends on what you mean by "need." The people who omit "that" wherever it could possibly be omitted are correct when they say it isn't absolutely necessary, but I argue that, in a lot of those cases, it sure as hell helps.

At 5:48 PM, January 16, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

I would argue that "Omit needless words" still stands there. Those "thats" are definitely needed, despite what some misguided editors say.

At 12:10 AM, January 17, 2005, Blogger Phillip Blanchard said...

I think we all know that the "rule" transcends "that."

At 1:21 PM, January 17, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

But of course. It's just one example where it is misapplied.


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