The Elements of Style…


…should be renamed to “Just stop using any style that isn’t exactly like ours.”

Some folks may be shocked by this, but not everyone is fond of Strunk & White.

However, before I join in on the assault, let’s get something out of the way. As far as that particular critique goes, I’m actually on Strunk & White’s court in the matter on which it spends great volume and intensity picking them apart, which is the active voice versus passive voice. Even here, though, I am not concerned about “style” so much as I am about the method of thinking that finds a way, through the style, to achieve visibility. The professors do not examine this. But “America is seen as a colonialist force,” apart from possessing very bad style and therefore offending the tender sensibilities of Strunk and White, skips past the logical vitals of the point being made, to wit: Who is seeing America that way? This promotes lazy thinking.

The speaker might as well say “No, I didn’t take a poll, but let’s just skip ahead to the fun part where I get to monologue away about what’s wrong with this country that I don’t like.” Like I said. Lazy. So I side with them there.

But what follows is just dumb (Chapter V. Words and Expressions Commonly Misused). It is not in keeping with the goal of making the material easier to read:

However. In the meaning nevertheless, not to come first in its sentence or clause.

The roads were almost impassable. However, we at last succeeded in reaching camp.

The roads were almost impassable. At last, however, we succeeded in reaching camp.

When however comes first, it means in whatever way or to whatever extent.

However you advise him, he will probably do as he thinks best.

However discouraging the prospect, he never lost heart.

“However, we at last succeeded in reaching camp.” That is flagged as flawed material, upon which the professors’ advice may improve. There isn’t a thing in the world wrong with it, although I might have said “we eventually reached camp.”

There are not too many other specific points made in this guidebook with which I ardently disagree, and I do think there is some opportunity here for writers to improve on their work by perusing it from top to bottom, as a list of pet peeves, bees in the bonnet of someone who’s taken the time to write them all down. But that is all they are. There seems to be something in the human condition, when we see someone’s taken the time to write down preferences that have not been explored in much detail elsewhere, we see such a tome as some kind of a “bible.” This is incorrect. The little-white-book is nothing more than a matter of taste. Some parts of it making for better advice than other parts of it, but…well, there it is. A higglety-pigglety hodge-podge of sensible advice, and some stranger’s stylistic preferences.

Maybe I should put together a list of what bugs me about teevee commercials. As long as nobody else compiles anything similar, people will start to see it as a bible. No offending jingles! Get rid of the doofus dads! Freeberg doesn’t like ‘em!

At a high level, I’m not enamored of the preferences. The overarching goal, making things easier for the reader, seems to be met by way of texturing all the writing within a chapter or section so that it adheres to a common rhythm, much like the rhythm of a lullaby must be kept constant so that the baby is lulled into sleep. This business with “at last, however, we succeeded in reaching camp” is a perfect example of what I seek to describe here. It is measurably harder to read than its alternative, in that it has an extra comma. But to Strunk, White, and people who seek a reading experience similar to what they seek, it is more pleasing because its rhythm is constant with the sentence that came before. Well guess what…there are other kinds of readers out there. I’m not pleased or proud of my writing when it looks like that. That looks, to me, like I was distracted by the point I wanted to get across, and I wasn’t putting my attention on the sentences I was putting together. It looks like I’m abusing the reader. In short, it looks like bad writing.

I do think students should study this. In fact, I think they should study it years and years before they are customarily compelled to do so. Fifth or sixth grade would be about right. I’ll even go so far as to say, where the advice makes sense, and through my negligence I have produced something inconsistent with it, on occasion an improvement might be achieved by bringing my product into compliance. But people tend to forget these rules are soft, and not hard.

And I notice, throughout a great many years, when people recommend to me that I should “pick up a copy” they entirely leave out details. They don’t point to any particular paragraph or sentence in my work that has violated a recommendation in the little white book, nor do they point to any particular chapter or page in the little white book that specs the rule. Frankly, this comes across looking like “I was nagged for a long time by my editor/professor, and it chaps my hide that you appear to have escaped my misery,” classic crabs-in-a-bucket mentality. But apart from that, the lack of detail is rather unhelpful. I’m left to peruse my own manifesto from top to bottom, and then Strunk & White from cover to cover, and go “Ah ha! I better fix that!” And frankly, I have better things to do with my time. Like, revising “butkus” to its proper spelling of bubkes…meeting the rules that are, y’know, genuine actual rules.

Cross-posted at House of Eratosthenes.

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