Shredding Strunk and White
Marian the Grammarian I am not, although for a number of years I was allowed to impose my ideas of correctness on the writing of others — and got paid for doing it. (How cool is that!?)
I’d be the first to admit that no sooner did I walk out of the classroom than I began forgetting the definitions of terms like past participle, pluperfect, homonym, and dangling participle. If gut instinct (“it sounds right”) deserted me, I reached for whatever stylebook was specified by my current employer. (At one educational publishing house, the writers were teachers, but editors like me were gods! Sweet.)
Back in the day, one of the books required by some of my instructors was Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. I still have one or two editions of it on a back shelf somewhere. Handy little book, I used to think; I’ll keep it around. (Something in me rebels against discarding any book for any reason.)
I was intrigued, then, when I came across an item saying April 16 will be the 50th anniversary of that tiny tome, especially since the item was entitled “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.”
In it, Geoffrey K. Pullum, head of linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh, shreds the book. We’re talking confetti here, folks. Small confetti. And as you might expect, a 50-year-old instruction manual on something as dynamic as the English language yields a parade’s worth of confetti.
Despite his academic creds, however, I do have a tiny bone to pick with Dr. (Prof?) Pullum. Geoffrey. Geoff. To support some of his points, he cites examples from literature. It seems to me that in doing so, he immediately makes his view descriptive, not prescriptive. In my feeble little brain, unenlightened as it is by any formal postgraduate education, a basic reference on grammar and usage should be prescriptive. Teach students the basics of how things should be done — this is a box and this is how you build it. They will, soon enough, be out in the real world doing things their way, thinking and operating outside that box.
With language, as with life, one must walk before one can run. Great books, to me, are not examples of how the language should be used but of how it can be used. Each book is an example of how one author bent the language to his will, for his purposes, to achieve his ends.