Saturday, April 25, 2009

Is Style Dead?

Last October, The Longman Press published an anniversary edition of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which commemorated the 50th year since the first professional publication of this most influential guides to grammar in the English language.

Yesterday The New York Times asked five scholars, writers and grammarians to grade the aging guide and what they come back with was... well, at best faintly ridiculous and at worst a gross misuse of The Times’ now precious ink.

Patricia T. O’Conner
(Woe Is I, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language) offers what is perhaps the most lucid assessment from this five.

“Rereading Strunk and White on its 50th birthday,” O’Conner says as she begins, “is like meeting an old lover and realizing how much you’ve outgrown him. Things have changed, little book, and you have not, or not enough.”

She is less generous with the book later on. “But much of the grammar and usage advice in the rest of the book is baloney, to use a good concrete word.”

She concludes with still more concrete and forces a smile with a fact that is beyond dispute: “Finally, ‘six persons’ is not better than ‘six people.’ Show me a guy who invariably says ‘six persons’ and I will show you a fathead.”

She has a point. On the other hand, Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing), overshoots the mark. “If Strunk and White were a movie,” she writes, “it would be a blockbuster, but I find its hallowed status disturbing.”

Clearly, this is an ongoing debate of gently Biblical proportions. Ask half a dozen writers -- as The Times nearly has here -- and you’ll get half a dozen differently nuanced answers. And all of that said -- and more, so much more -- most of us still keep a copy of the book on our reference shelves.

The New York Times piece is here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want my Strunk & White's! Stop the madness please. You won't be able to pry that little book from my cold, dead hands.

Morgan Whiteside, NYC

Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 11:39:00 AM PDT  

Post a Comment

<< Home