Saturday, October 17, 2009

Grammar Text Rantings

I hate Strunk and White's "Elements of Style."

There, I've said it.

I know I'm not alone, and I suppose to be completely honest I don't hate the book, per se. What inspires the loathing (I decided "hate" wasn't strong enough) is that the book is treated in literary circles much like the Bible at a fundamentalist's convention. It is regarded as sacrosanct, unassailable, and unimpeachable in its authority. People who quote Strunk and White at you often do so with that self-superior air that says, not only were you wrong, but they're going to beat you with the good book just to make sure you grasp just how wrong you were.

Now, I will admit that some of the times they are correct. Often, however, it's a lot more subjective than any of the "Elementals" will ever admit to. If that was not the case, why would there be more than one manual of style in official use? (I'm more of a "Chicago" person than an MFA myself.) Yet, even when these die-hard Stunk & White cult members have other manuals on their desk, it's the little slim volume they choose to beat you with.

(Which is actually fortunate. The Chicago Manual of Style is a big, heavy book. It would hurt. A lot.)

It's that unwillingness to adjust to the changing and adaptive nature of the English language that most often irks me when I get into discussions with Elementals. English, like most modern languages, is constantly evolving, and subject to certain vagaries of style. Mike Royko once put the Gettysburg Address through a grammar checker for one of his columns, with predictable results. Strunk first penned the initial version of "TEOS" in the early 20th Century. Things have changed.

This is not to argue that there shouldn't be guidelines. There should be. And it's a good idea to know the rules before you attempt to bend them (or altogether ignore them) in you're own writing. As an editor, I relied heavily on having a set style to adhere the authors to. Without it, an editor's job would be twice as hard as it is.

The problem is that unlike the Chicago manual and others like it, which get updated periodically, Strunk & White has been left alone, intact, since its initial publication. No one has bothered to revise or update it, in part I think because unlike those other manuals it has the name of two authors attached - one of whom was fairly prominent. If the book had been generically published by a college or some other entity, I think by now it would be it it's fourth of fifth version, at least.

The progression of time will only serve to heighten these shortcomings in the book. As a historical look into the nuances of early Twentieth Century English, I think it has its place. It's not even a bad place for the fledgling writer to start if they are unsure of the rules. But at a certain point, it needs to be shelved in favor of books that are more flexible.

And if I should disappear after this post, I urge the authorities to look into the nearest holder of a copy of Strunk & White. It'll be dog-eared, well used, and the owner will lecture you on the proper use of commas and semicolons

3 comments:

Figaro said...

Hi. I wanted to give you a couple of factual corrections regarding TEOS.

1) White did not write the first edition of TEOS in the early twentieth century. White didn't write the first edition at all, Strunk did, in 1918. White didn't get involved until 1957.

2) You say "Strunk & White has been left alone, intact, since it's [sic] initial publication. No one has bothered to revise or update it." It was revised in 1920 and 1935 before White got involved. White first revised it in 1958. After that, White revised it twice more: in 1972 and 1979. The current publishers of TEOS, Pearson, revised it in 2000. The Strunk & White version is now, in fact, in its fourth edition.

You also make a mistake with "it's." The possessive form of "it" gets no apostrophe: its.

FJ

slcboston said...

With regard to comments one and two: typos, both of them. (I posted in that regard with the mix-up of homophones a few entries back. I *do* know the difference.)

And having worked in the publishing industry, the differences in editions are generally not substantive. Also, they are often put out for legal and/or economic purposes more so than anything else.

I won't say for certain that those revised editions don't include updates to reflect the evolution of the language - lest I be corrected again - but I will stand by my comment that there are much better, and more up-to-date guides out there.

Figaro said...

Sure, that's fine to stand by your comment about preferring other guides; to each his own. I just wanted to point out the factual errors in your pieces (and help you with "its" along the way).

Have a good one.

FJ