Happy Birthday, Strunk & White

25 04 2009

Cue the music and release the balloons for the half-century celebration of E. B. White’s revision of his English professor’s original Elements of Style, all decked out in a new golden anniversary edition.

NYT’s Room for Debate blog invited a shortlist of honored guests to pay tribute (but what a churlish, surly bunch, not one appreciative admirer in the bunch, methinks they oughtn’t be invited back!):

“”If people would stop touting it as the Indispensable Book and using it as a weapon, we wouldn’t have to annoy them with our attacks.”

* Geoffrey K. Pullum, professor of linguistics
* Patricia T. O’Conner, grammarphobia.com
* Stephen Dodson, languagehat.com
* Ben Yagoda, professor of English
* Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl

One shudders to imagine how such company would behave should Miss Manners include them in her golden anniversary observance . . .
😉

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9 responses

25 04 2009
Crimson Wife

An unschooling friend shared a link to an extended version of Dr. Pullum’s critique on our local support group e-list. I found it interesting.

I’ve never actually seen the book (though, of course, I’d heard of it), but I’m 99% sure that my high school English teacher used it as his stylistic bible.

25 04 2009
Crimson Wife

It just occurred to me that I ought to have included a link to my friend’s blog as you or some of your readers might enjoy it. While she and I quite often don’t share the same POV, I find her discussions typically quite thoughtful. She blogs over at “Liberty Lyceum”.

25 04 2009
JJ

Good name. 🙂

25 04 2009
JJ

Favorite Daughter the Always Unschooled Worshipper of Words adores Strunk and White. She says one either loves or hates it. We talked about this earlier today and she said it wasn’t the tool, it was how people misused it, didn’t get it. She thinks E.B. White definitely “got it” but maybe couldn’t convey it all with rules, that much of his facility with words was layered below the subconscious and therefore not well enough understood even by himself, to spell out in a mere style guide.

So I think if she ever becomes the English professor she means to be, Strunk and White will be on her desk, necessary but not sufficient, perhaps even a righteous separator of the wheat from the chaff, in her class! 😉

25 04 2009
JJ

Wow, this IS churlish! The conclusion from CW’s Chronicle of Higher Ed link, Pullum’s pronouncement of why HE is the expert and not the authors —

It’s sad. Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write “however” or “than me” or “was” or “which,” but can’t tell you why. The land of the free in the grip of The Elements of Style.

So I won’t be spending the month of April toasting 50 years of the overopinionated and underinformed little book that put so many people in this unhappy state of grammatical angst. I’ve spent too much of my scholarly life studying English grammar in a serious way. English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can’t even tell when they’ve broken their own misbegotten rules.

Geoffrey K. Pullum is head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh and co-author (with Rodney Huddleston) of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

26 04 2009
JJ

Sunday NYT Magazine, William Safire’s column — it’s called “lang-lit” and he says “books about words are suddenly the talk of the town” and he writes about several, referring to an “insider’s book” called “The Subversive Copy Editor” good for curing “writers who can’t stand damnable nitpicking” and then concluding with Garner’s Modern American Usage as “sensibly centrist.”

(As opposed to the insufferably prescriptive Strunk and White, one supposes, which he never mentions?)

In extolling Garner’s compilation of profound essays and speeches, Safire describes the book’s story about Antonin Scalia, one of FavD’s least favorite Supreme Court justices, as someone who cares too much about words and their usage in a self-described “SNOOTY” (Syntax Nudniks of Our Time) way. I remember John Roberts is said to be in that camp too, a supercilious word nerd obsessed with form even over function (as in the inaugural oath?) , and FavD doesn’t like Roberts any better than Scalia for felicity with words in power of story, so maybe those two as cautionary tales, are the key to getting her relax a little on the S&W? 😉

26 04 2009
Crimson Wife

What can I say, Catholics like rules :-p

27 04 2009
JJ

Ben Yagoda, author of “When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It” was one of the English professors guest-blogging for NYT. Here’s his “In Defense of Common English” for Chronicle of Higher Ed:

Anyone who knows any linguists and lexicographers will be unsurprised to hear that their position on usage was descriptive rather than prescriptive: They were interested in charting and interpreting recent and historical changes in the way English is written and spoken, not interested in labeling those changes as “mistakes,” and even less interested in decrying such so-called errors as evidence of a decline in American civilization.

I wish he’d said that at the Times, instead of seeming to pile on with all the other misconstruers. OTOH, I just went back to reread his words there and I think I see layers and complexity, that he might have been obliquely explaining that Strunk wanted his all his students to be like E.B. White, to excel in mastery of style by first not affecting any style, to grasp the difference between style and substance so they could develop both authentically, for themselves?

“The approach to style,” he concludes, “is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.”

White purports to be talking about “style” but is really advocating a particular style. It is a style of absence: absence of grammatical mistakes, breeziness, opinions, jargon, clichés, mixed metaphors, wordiness and, indeed, anything that could cloud the transparency of the prose and remind readers that a real person composed it.

And that is the strangest thing of all. If you are writing about something that’s important to you, why should you want to disappear? E.B. White himself certainly never retreated to the background. His prose style is orderly, to be sure, but it only seems to be plain, simple and sincere. Anyone who has paid attention knows that it’s actually opinionated, thorny, idiosyncratic and unmistakable!

27 04 2009
JJ

From “We Can’t Agree What . . . Words Mean”

Hi Dawn – the term Christian itself (like homeschooler?) seems to have been redefined by the wacko contingent, though.

And the Imus thing teaches the power of language for evil as well as good — the language we use to frame our humanity seems to be under assault in all directions, so that even when we manage to THINK a clear thought, its sworn enemies are lying in wait to choke it off in the crib or lose it in the wilderness, as soon as we try to EXPRESS it.

Not just Christians. And not just homeschoolers. It all ties together into even darker and more menacing problems of meaning IN LAW, not just in our private speech.

As prominent educator Deborah Meier pointed out last fall, the root problem may be that we can’t legally define “educated person” [because law has been manipulated to] “define stem cells as babies, late-term abortions as birth, but now deem real live infant citizens born and born HERE, not to be Americans and in fact not to be newborns at all!
They just disappear them with a stroke of the pen, like FL Ed Commissioner John Winn does with school failures”:

And yes, sports are a metaphor for all human meaning —

“This is a season of discussion. It’s time to air it all out.”

. . .SEC football was my community of faith as an impressionable child and the very bosom of my higher education — did you know “alma mater” literally means “nurturing mother?” — and so I remain helpless as a child in its visceral sway despite all later education, experiences and analytical skills I acquired.

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