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Reading: Strunk & White, Language Police

"Write naturally," advises White. But he and his professor and their poisonous little book and their legion of devotees virtually ensure that it will not happen.



Possessed, suddenly, for reasons I'll go into below, of a brand-new copy of Strunk and White's freshman-English perennial, The Elements of Style, I creased it open and my eyes fell on this paragraph from chapter four, "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused":

"Transpire. Not to be used in the sense of 'happen,' 'come to pass.' Many writers so use it (usually when groping toward an imagined elegance), but their usage finds little support in the Latin 'breathe across or through.' It is correct, however, in the sense of 'become known.' 'Eventually, the grim account of his villainy transpired' (literally, 'leaked through or out')."

Now, writing about language in America--particularly in journalism, where it's a dull day if Dear Abby or an editorialist isn't on the word beat in one form or another--has become a mass-appeal blood sport, with audience participation encouraged. But I don't think "transpire" means what Strunk and White say it means, and after a quick reacquaintance with their book I came to the conclusion that they were way off on a lot of other issues as well. I was suddenly struck by the artificiality of so many language "rules," and by the zeal with which they're enforced by so many. Everyone's an expert these days; if you end a sentence with a preposition you're going to have Sneed on your case, or at least a letter-to-the-editor writer. Through such a barrage a skeptic wanders at some risk, but I'd like to try.

The Elements of Style was originally a privately published volume written by one of E.B. White's English profs at Cornell, William Strunk Jr. The year was 1919. White, 40 years later, wrote a charming memoir for the New Yorker about the book and the writer; Macmillan publishers saw the article and commissioned White to revise the book for general circulation. (Strunk was long dead; White's memoir became the new book's introduction.) The first edition of Strunk and White's Elements of Style was published in 1959. It was immediately popular, garnering reviews of the sort usually reserved for Jack Kemp in the Wall Street Journal or Meryl Streep generally. The New York Times is quoted on the cover of the second edition, which came out in 1972: "Buy it, study it, enjoy it. It's as timeless as any book can be in this age of volubility." A third edition was published in 1979; and somewhere along the line The Elements of Style, which seemed to be required in every college English course across the land, became not a book but a way of life. Today no self-respecting writer would be without one, and many can quote whole sections of it word for word.

My three editions have sat yellowing on a shelf for some time, but recently the thing was forced back on my attention: a certain well-known paperback-book club has now assembled an expanded, three-volume Elements of . . . set. I dutifully ordered it, and now find myself with trade-paperback editions of not only The Elements of Style but also The Elements of Grammar, written by someone named Margaret Shertzer, and The Elements of Editing, by Arthur Plotnik, the editor in chief of American Libraries magazine, the house organ of the Chicago-based American Library Association. These latter two books, aside from their titles, are made to resemble The Elements of Style by their use of a similar sans serif typeface on the covers, which also have emblazoned on them this message: "From the publisher of The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White." Now, neither Strunk nor White, who are both dead, had anything to do with these books, and technically the publisher is Collier Books, a subsidiary of Macmillan, but that's publishing these days for you.

Margaret Shertzer is nowhere identified in her book, and after reading it I've concluded it's because the name is a pseudonym. I certainly wouldn't have allowed my name to go on a book so mystifyingly wrongheaded and riddled with errors and misconceptions. For a start, the book is mistitled: it's not properly about grammar at all--rather it's full of little rules and conventions on how to use parentheses correctly and when to capitalize "president." Fully half the book, in fact, is about punctuation and capitalization. The whole affair is such a low-budget operation that I can't say I was surprised when I happened upon this legend on the title page: "Based on The Secretary's Handbook by Sarah Augusta Taintor and Kate M. Munro." In other words, Collier Books has repackaged an old office style manual and is sloughing it off as an "indispensible" volume to folks who read The Elements of Style in college and think a book with "grammar" in the title will tell them how to write "correctly."

I expected similar shenanigans from Plotnik's The Elements of Editing, but it turned out to be a first-rate, extremely rational guide. The book begins with a trenchant look at the difference between "functional" and "dysfunctional" compulsiveness on the part of editors. Plotnik recalls one dysfunctionally compulsive colleague who spent valuable time on deadline "searching for ps with amputated descenders." By contrast, a functionally compulsive editor will spend deadline time quadruple-checking page proofs--to catch that last 1 percent of errors--and allot "a full ten seconds" to looking over each and every typesetting code. (A single incorrect letter or number in the code can produce thousands of lines of incorrectly set copy--a costly and time-consuming mistake.) Anyone who's spent any time in the playpens that now pass for newsrooms in many journalistic institutions will find much wisdom in this first chapter alone. The only thing that confuses me is why such a specialized book--Plotnik includes a section on libel and even an editor's guide to photography--is being offered as a general-interest work. I suspect it was the idea of the same Collier editor who turned The Secretary's Handbook into The Elements of Grammar.

A remark of Plotnik's brought me back to The Elements of Style: "A little Strunk and White is a dangerous thing," he writes, and that's the truth. Recall Strunk and White's sample sentence for "transpire": "Eventually, the grim account of his villainy transpired." Now, that's a sentence only a martian would utter. My sample sentence is: "None of us were prepared for what transpired," and I stand by it.

"Transpire" has been a bugaboo for language cops for about 300 years. As Strunk and White suggest, it originally had the meaning of "leak out," strictly in the literal sense: gas, for example, would transpire. But soon people started using it metaphorically as well: "Word of his villainy transpired." Samuel Johnson disapproved of this usage in his dictionary in 1750; 150 years later, the Fowler brothers, in The King's English, also disapproved of the word's metaphorical use. But in the interim a new meaning had somehow sprung up--"transpire" for "happen" or "occur," which is what most nonmartians take the word to mean today. "Transpire" was used in this sense, Merriam-Webster tells us, as early as 1775, in a letter from Abigail Adams to her husband, the future president. The Fowlers campaigned against it in 1906, and now here are Strunk and White fighting the same tired battle 70 years later. That's called beating a very dead horse and selling it as prime cut to a lot of gullible freshmen.

"Transpire" isn't an isolated slip--it's one of dozens of farfetched diktats on language in The Elements of Style. The title itself, ironically enough, contains one of the blurrings of meaning that the pair complain about. Words like "style," "usage," and "grammar" are thrown around a lot by language writers--primarily, it sometimes seems, as hocus-pocus to keep readers intimidated. "Grammar" is best used to describe a systematic analysis of inflections and syntax. "Style," by contrast, can have two meanings when it's used about language. First there's a writer's style, which can be as wild, as calm, or as idiosyncratic as any person. On the other hand there's what is sometimes called "house style." This is the set of myriad little typographical or orthographic rules that most journalistic institutions maintain. (There's a New York Times style, an Associated Press style--even a Reader style.)

Finally there's "usage," which Henry Fowler immortalized in Modern English Usage. (He had his prejudices, it is true, but next to Fowler's majesty most writers on language are pigeons.) "Usage" is the set of conventions--some sensible, some outlandish--that language cops and schoolmarms have built up over the years, ranging from the ancient proscriptions against splitting infinitives and ending a sentence with a preposition to rather newer bans on perfectly serviceable words like "finalize." ("Usage" also has a more neutral sense, of course, but for the most part writers use it to mean how they think words should be used.)

One of the problems with The Elements of Style is that it is actually a melange of writings on three subjects: usage, house style, and writing style. Let's look at the book from each of these three perspectives. "Usage" is the most controversial aspect of the book--for usage is, in fact, at the heart of a debate on language that has been stridently fought for 40 or 50 years. It is a complicated story, but it will suffice for our purposes to say that since the publication of Leonard Bloomfield's Language in 1933, modern linguistic theory holds that, (1) the real language is the spoken language; (2) to study language you have to study how people actually speak it; (3) languages change; and (4) any "rules" can be based only on current spoken usage. Now, all this does not mean, as too many are quick to say, that "anything goes." A key corollary to these precepts is that people speak naturally, and speak to communicate--that is, with a purpose. The essential requirement for "correctness" isn't what E.B. White says it is but what gets the job done. (Some linguists maintain that a native speaker speaking naturally never makes mistakes.) All the artificial rule making handed down by language creeps and schoolteachers only creates undesired effects: the "It is I" rule produces "between you and I"; the "don't end a sentence with a preposition" proscription produces "from whence."

Linguistics became and has remained a dirty word for many language cops, and to this day many of them, obviously, have a following. But the real battle ended, for all intents and purposes, with the publication of the great Merriam-Webster Third New International Dictionary in 1961. (The Third is the giant-sized unabridged displayed in most libraries.) The Merriams, led by editor Philip Gove, dispensed with most of the prescriptivist nonsense of most dictionaries and made the world safe for "descriptivism"--which maintains that dictionaries should describe how people actually speak and write and not how certain people think other people should speak and write. The publication of the Third occasioned a rather sharp reception from the old guard, but things have calmed down in the last 25 years.

Still, "correct" usage is the badge most language cops wear as they police their turf. To me, the irony is that, if you think about it for more than a second, almost all usage dictates are pointless. Languages evolve, gradually and ineluctably. They don't decay, devolve, or deteriorate; never in the history of the world has a language "died." (Latin didn't die; the people who spoke it did. Their descendants speak French, Italian, Spanish, Rumanian, and more than half a dozen other languages, all of them quite serviceable.) People speak a natural, uninhibited version of their language at a particular point in its evolution. If enough people are using a particular construction or using a particluar word with a "wrong" meaning to get themselves noticed by the language cops, the battle has already been lost.

"Transpire"--with an "incorrect" meaning 200 years old--is a good example, but let's look at some others from The Elements of Style. Strunk and White disapprove of "hopefully" used at the beginning of a sentence to mean "I hope" or "it is to be hoped." "Such use," sniff the dynamic duo, "is not merely wrong, it is silly. To say, 'Hopefully, I'll leave on the noon plane,' is to talk nonsense."

Merriam-Webster says that such a use has been current for nearly 60 years, and has many parallels in English, among them "interestingly," "presumably," and "fortunately." A ban on "hopefully" is laughably inconsistent; it's ignorant as well. At issue here is the almost unimaginable complexity of the English language. The position of words within the sentence can make for subtle and extravagant changes in sense: in this case, adverbs change meaning according to whether they are placed before or after the verb. The very rational linguist Randolph Quirk, following the massive grammar by Otto Jespersen, cites the sentences "He naturally replied" and "He replied naturally." "We are still a very long way," Quirk writes, "from understanding all the rules of adverb usage in English, and the language bristles with other difficulties too, which as native speakers we find hard even to notice."

But Strunk and White are on a roll, and on they go, strewing their path with "logic" carried to absurdity. We mustn't say "six people" but rather "six persons," because "six people" minus "five people" equals "one people." "Fertilize," "summarize," and "harmonize" are permissible, but "customize," "finalize," and "prioritize" are not. Why? Because they are "abominations." Certain nouns used as a verb are "suspect"; we're not supposed to say someone "hosted" a party, or "chaired" a meeting, or "debuted." "Claim" must be used only to mean "lay claim to," not "assert"; it is preferred that "fix" mean "make firm" rather than "arrange" or "mend."

We are all accustomed to taking the word of the language experts: "Oh, I've been using it wrong" is a natural response to these commands. But on reflection the business begins to take on an air of surreality. Why, in 1979 (the date of the last revision of the book), is one of the country's most famous journalists telling his readers not to use the word "fix" to mean "mend," as in "Hey, Dad, I've fixed my bike"?

Finally, the high point: we are not to use the phrase "student body." In his introduction, White tells us that crazy old Professor Strunk had a thing about it, preferring--get this--the word "studentry." You know, like "citizenry." "Student body" was awkward, gruesome, and cadaverous, Strunk felt. It's another example of the extraordinarily arbitrary self-centeredness of so much prescriptive writing on language. "Student body" is a robust, evocative term--it contains a vivid image, and it has a strong metaphorical underpinning that we find in several analogous phrases: "this august body" or the "body politic." Beyond that, there are "clunky" parallels with long, distinguished histories. My favorite, and the one I immediately thought of when White attacked "student body," is the Latin phrase res publica. It's the word our "republic" comes from, of course. Res publica means the state, the government, public affairs generally, the commonwealth. It's one of the most redolent words in all of Western history. But literally it means "the public thing," which sounds pretty vulgar. Thank God Strunk wasn't writing in the second century BC.

As far as questions of "house style" go, Strunk and White are on more solid ground, but that may be because style questions are by definition a matter of preference. On the other hand, they rarely give the whole story, and don't make it clear how much of style is a matter of individual choice. The first chapter, "Elementary Rules of Usage," is actually all about punctuation. (Language writers are crazy about punctuation; if you are too, check out Eric Partridge's You Have a Point There, a tour de force.) There are two kinds of punctuation: that governed by rules, and that governed by preferences. Strunk and White, of course, immediately zero in on the preferences and make it seem that the fate of the world depends on going by theirs.

Strunk and White's first rule is: "Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding 's." This may seem pretty plain to you, but their target is not just simple phrases like "the cat's meow." Over the years a highly diverse and extremely complicated set of preferences have evolved for constructing the possessive, particularly for proper names that end with the letter s. Different publications have different rules for proper names that end in s; proper names of one syllable that end in s; proper names with an interior s sound as well as an s at the end; proper names that end in s but in which the s is silent; proper names that end in s but that are derived from Latin or ancient Greek or Hebrew; words that end in s and are followed by another word that begins with s; and--get ready for this one--a certain class of words that end with an s sound that don't get an apostrophe s when followed by a word that begins with s even though most other words that end with an s sound instead of the actual letter s do get one: "for conscience' sake." The AP stylebook has four columns on this question, the New York Times guide a similar amount; Partridge is a bit saner.

Now, this is folderol, but so is Strunk and White's rigid pronouncement. All of these conventions have sprung up for a variety of traditional and typographical reasons, but what matters most is consistency and ease of reading.

The second Elements of Style rule is similarly dumb: it advocates the use of the "serial" or "series" comma--the one that goes after "white" in the phrase "red, white, and blue." Some publications use the series comma, others don't. (Legend has it that the wire services and daily newspapers don't use it to save space in narrow columns, but this may be apocryphal.) My personal preference is to dispense with it in short phrases and include it in longer, more complex ones and elsewhere when it is helpful--as in the sentence "I had ham, bacon and eggs, and orange juice for breakfast." (Fowler agrees with me.) Some institutions--the Reader and the New Yorker, among others--make the writer's choice for him and insist on the series comma's use. One rationale I've heard for this is that it accustoms the reader to its presence, thereby allowing a writer to indicate, by its absence, that the second and third terms are standing in apposition to the first. This strikes me as a bit farfetched.

And there is yet another preference: James Thurber, certainly as fine a stylist as E.B. White, is known to have disapproved of the comma after "red," arguing for "red white and blue." That's a total of four different preferences, four different points of view. The most important aspect of the whole debate, of course, is being consistent within a given work, but Strunk and White don't mention that. They're more interested in rules than they are in truth, or just plain common sense.

Why is this so? Writers think they have a personal franchise on the language--and, of course, each does. But every other writer and speaker has an equal one. But like a mechanic showing off his knowledge of camshafts, or a pompous economist declaiming unintelligibly about interest rates, writers try to mythologize their craft. They use rudimentary terms "usage," "style"--in highfalutin ways and predicate entrance to the kingdom on adherence to a mess of inconsistent, artificial "rules."

What this produces among a certain class of people is intellectual snobbery. A couple of weeks ago some clown wrote in to Jeffrey Zaslow, the Sun-Times advice columnist, to say that Zaslow had misused the phrase "fell between the cracks." The letter writer said that logic required that something fall "through" the cracks. Ten years ago, a guy wrote in to William Safire, the New York Times's misguided language columnist, responding to Safire's use of the same phrase. This grammar cop said that what you actually had to say was "fell through the crack," because logically whatever it is can only fall through one. Zaslow, instead of telling the guy to shop his neuroses around elsewhere, caved in and apologized.

But "fall between the cracks" is a useful and imaginative idiom; more important, however, everyone says it and everyone else knows what it means. And finally, this use of "between" can be found in any number of other contexts--a person might say "There's a fence between every house," for instance--and a decent dictionary will note that it's been used in this fashion by good writers going back to George Eliot ("pausing between every sentence to rap the floor").

So, yes, writers think they have a personal franchise on the language; they use it, they figure, so they must have a superior insight. But they don't, any more than a lumberjack knows anything about the biology of trees. Something Quirk said is instructive: "The language bristles with other difficulties too, which as native speakers we find difficult even to notice."

We're all in a forest, and it's autumn; leaves are falling, a fine thing and proper in the overall scheme of nature. But a shrill crowd pronounces this leaf "good" and that "bad." "This leaf," they say, "is permitted to fall, but this one is not." The leaves keep falling, of course, and six months later others have sprouted. "Harrumph," say our friends. "They're certainly not as good as they were last year." Samuel Johnson was a grumpy prescriptivist, but after spending ten years on the terrible art of lexicography he got a glimpse, far ahead of his time, of the true workings of the language: "When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a million years; and with equal justice, may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to provide no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation."

We should probably acknowledge that William Strunk was the product of a much different time from ours. His Cornell--the school that taught E.B. White--meant to instill in the minds of a budding generation of aristocrats the proper steps to the proper dances; and White, a product of his time, can hardly be blamed for promulgating the received wisdom of his formative years. In theory, there's nothing wrong with a privately distributed monograph detailing a particular professor's prejudices for the guidance of his students. Seven decades later, however, and three generations on, we have an implacable army of Strunk and White devotees still trying to shove The Elements of Style down the throats of college freshmen. But what's wrong with those pronouncements? one might ask. What's wrong with having freshmen, and even young journalists, think about the language they are supposed to be learning?

The problem is that ultimately it can only distract from the real work at hand, which is teaching people how to write. This is the third theme of Strunk and White's book--writing style. "Be concise," they chorus. "Omit needless words. Be clear." Now, no one's going to quarrel with this advice. "Writing is, for most, laborious and slow," writes White in the last chapter, which he added to Strunk's original work. "The mind travels faster than the pen [or even the word processor!]; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it passes by." This is fine writing, and useful as well, because it offers an understanding companionship to anyone who has ever sat, frustrated, in front of a blank piece of paper.

But this comes at the end of the book, after nearly 100 pages of "studentry," and "hopefully," and the series comma, and the mystifying commentary on "transpire." By now, the reader and prospective writer can hardly shoot straight: he's not only spooked but gun-shy to boot. Writing is about thinking, and for the majority of the book the reader has been encouraged not to think but to obey. That's not good teaching--it's not even good writing. E.B. White, I'm sure, was a lovable guy (though it may have been difficult to like Professor Strunk); but in The Elements of Style he's a cranky old man, straining to derive some sort of power by handing down rules.

And the harm? None, in one sense, because our language is hale and hearty and big--so big, in fact, that even The Elements of Style crammed down one million freshmen's throats, or two million, ten, will affect it not a whit. But the book will affect the freshmen, who will shy at their own thoughts and start at the sight of that thought on the wing zooming by because they are distracted, confused, and dismayed at this silly melange of misguided rules.

"Write naturally," says White; his book helps ensure that this will not happen. He and his professor and their harmful little book are agents provocateurs, disrupting thought, meaning, communication, and than this there are few greater crimes. They don't mean to, of course, nor does the league of little language cops loitering about on literary street corners with their ears pricked up to catch an infraction. We're accustomed to fearing them, but we shouldn't. We should speak naturally, write naturally, think naturally. "The grammaticians are arguing," wrote Horace. "The matter is still under dispute." Whose side should we take? Our own--before we lose the courage of our tongue.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, Macmillan, $4.95.

The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer, Macmillan, $4.95.

The Elements of Editing by Arthur Plotnik, Macmillan, $4.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Ralph Creasman.

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