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Strunk-struck

Jonathan Yardley has indulged himself in a little sentimental essay on the Strunk and White Elements of Style, and that has, predictably touched off a little outburst at Language Log. Professor Geoffrey Pullum, who — let’s be frank among friends — is not always unwilling to go a little over the top, has posted a blast, “Sentimental mush from the Washington Post.”

Professor Pullum links to a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger post on Jan Freeman’s blog, The Word, “Return of the living dead.” * Her sentiments resemble Professor Pullum’s: that The Elements of Style is frequently wrong-headed and unreliable.

My copy, I think the 1959 edition, is on a shelf in my office. When I acquired it as a senior in high school in 1969, already an admirer of E.B. White’s clear, straightforward prose, it encouraged me as a writer and seemed quite useful. But yes, it is dated and limited, and I have not read or consulted it in years. I keep a copy of my high school diploma on a shelf at home, also more for sentiment than any practical service.

Beware of people who make fetishes of books. Mr. Yardley goes so far as to suggest that “if someone wants to toss it in the box with me when I go six feet under, that would be fine; it might actually assure my passage through the Pearly Gates, since Saint Peter no doubt is a gentleman of impeccable grammatical taste, not to mention style.” This is more than a bit much, especially since the available records about the probably illiterate Galilean fisherman later promoted to Minos’ old job doesn’t appear to have been much of a stylist. (You may plant me with my copy of Boswell’s Life of Johnson.)

Harold Ross, the first editor of The New Yorker, treated Fowler’s Modern English Usage as sacred scripture. ** And while it was for its time useful, and remains entertaining to read, it is British and dated and headstrong and of limited utility.

It would be nice to think that I have learned something since 1969, or, for that matter, since 1985. I keep within reach at my desk Garner’s Modern American Usage, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, R.W. Burchfield’s New Fowler’s, and a dozen other manuals. They don’t always agree, and I have to arrive at judgments. I have learned over the course of writing this blog to pay attention to what they say in posts at Language Log, and always to take Ms. Freeman seriously. I’ve been at some pains to examine my own practices and to make some overdue adjustments.

If you’re serious about writing and editing, you will, too.

 

* For advice on language and writing from a newspaper, you can do no better than Ms. Freeman’s blog, or her column in The Boston Globe. She is well-informed and admirably reasonable, and she draws admirers from both the presciptivist and descriptivist camps.

** When I interviewed for a copy desk position at The New York Times in 1985, the redoubtable Allan Siegel asked me what manuals of English usage I consulted. I said, “I start with Fowler …” and he interrupted to say, “That’s enough.” (Despite the encouraging interview, The Times passed on me after the tryout. They did suggest that I take a job with a paper that took editing seriously and call back in a couple of years. I subsequently left The Cincinnati Enquirer for The Sun, and here I am.)

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:23 AM | | Comments (5)
        

Comments

Thus, the love for Cincinnati Chili, I presume...

If you had to be stuck on a deserted island with John Lindner, his wild pig and just one style manual, which style manual would you pick?

I'd write my own.

While I, too, have a copy of both Fowler and Stricken White, I would say that they're there only because I looked through them in my editing and publishing courses in college. Right now, I use Garner's quite extensively, and a book by Amy Einsohn called The Copyeditor's Handbook. The latter has been quite useful, and it's a very digestible read. I've suggested it to a few interns who have passed through my office.

Hello John. After discovering your blog last year I became a regular reader, but this is my first time commenting.

The Elements of Style is fine as a bite-sized introduction to lean writing, but it seems to inspire dogmatic allegiance in some, which in turns prompts some unbelievers to replace their apathy with antipathy and outright hostility. Every century needs its style wars, I suppose.

Garner's, MWDEU and Fowler's (three editions) are within arm's reach of my desk too, and, along with Ernest Gowers' Plain Words, constitute my set of most consulted English usage books. It would be great to see an updated edition of MWDEU one day.

My company prefers the Chicago Manual of Style, which annoys some of the clients we have. These clients prefer their own style guides and standards since they are the U.S. Government.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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