I know I’m not the only writer who lets loose an instant mental groan at the mere sight of grammatical phrases such as “nonrestrictive relative clause,” “pronomial possessive,” and “modal auxiliary.” Grammatical phrases and terms seem to be almost completely rejected by my brain. At their best they convey some convention or concept of usage that is pretty common sense and can therefore be easily grasped in spite of the blurring caused by the rather alien, mind-numbing terminology. At their worst they elicit internal eye rolls at humanity’s uncanny ability to embed so many layers of esotericism in our attempts to communicate with one another. Although my brain prefers practical examples of proper grammar over the rote memorization of grammatical terms and structures, a vocabulary of grammar is, to some extent, necessary for any good writer. This thought, along with some strategic skimming, helped me wade through William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style.
In the foreword to the fiftieth anniversary edition of The Elements of Style Roger Angell wrote, “we are all writers and readers as well as communicators, with the need at times to please and satisfy ourselves…with the clear and almost perfect thought” (Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, xi). Strunk and White offer a good bit to help writers of many sorts enhance the clarity of their writing, yet much of what they offer must be taken with a grain of salt. The line between individual preference and concrete rules is finer than many grammar-lovers are willing to admit. For example, getting professors to agree about the proper use a semicolon is about as easy as getting Republicans and Democrats to agree about healthcare. Some professors will tell you never to use a semicolon. Some have chided me for not using a semicolon instead of an em dash or separating two sentences. Kurt Vonnegut declared: “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college” (Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country, 23). Strunk and White, on the other hand, encourage the use of semicolons in certain situations (Strunk and White, 6-8). They admit, “the shape of our language is not rigid; in questions of usage we have no lawgiver whose word is final” (Strunk and White, 39). (Note the use of the semicolon.) The larger point I take away from all of this is that writers must learn to distinguish for themselves between rules and conventions and, perhaps most importantly, endeavor to be consistent.
The most useful sections of The Elements of Style are those that contain direct and clear advice for writers. Below are some of my favorite excerpts from Chapter II’s “Elementary Principles of Composition” and Chapter V’s “An Approach to Style.”
- “Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur…in most cases, planning must be a deliberate prelude to writing.” (15)
- “[W]hen a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.” (19)
- “As the active voice is more concise than the passive, and a positive statement more concise than a negative one.” (24)
- “Express coordinate ideas in similar form…The likeness of form enables the reader to recognize more readily the likeness of content and function.” (26)
- “Confusion and ambiguity result when words are badly placed.” (28)
- “All writers, by the way they use the language, reveal something of their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases.” (67)
- “The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.” (69)
- “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.” (71)
- “Revising is part of writing.” (72)
- “Do not overwrite. Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.” (72)
- “[S]ince writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue.” (79)
- “[T]he one truly reliable shortcut in writing is to choose words that are strong and surefooted to carry readers on their way.” (81)
- “Style takes it final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of grammar.” (84)
And for that reason, I’ll try to be a bit less cranky about grammar.