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jaytkay's avatar

"The Elements of Style" - Hot or not?

Asked by jaytkay (23381 points ) July 6th, 2011

For a young aspiring writer, is The Elements of Style still a good gift? When I was a teen, it was assumed everybody had a copy. Is there a better choice today?

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35 Answers

Jeruba's avatar

How young? how serious? There are lots of other choices that might be more apt.

linguaphile's avatar

You mean Strunk and EB White’s book? None of my students have a copy, and are more likely to look online for advice about grammar than refer to a book.

But… you said a young writer- I would think if you told the young writer, “This book is a real classic,” (it is) and has stood the test of time, has had an impact on you, etc, then I think the book will be appreciated. It still depends on the young writer’s age and how they perceive older materials.

Sadly, though, it’s not widely used anymore.

jaytkay's avatar

@Jeruba High school senior. Not committed to be a professional writer, but likely on her way to be a professional of some sort who needs to write well.

marinelife's avatar

What about Stephen King’s book On Writing for a young writer?

dappled_leaves's avatar

This book is still recommended and cherished among grad students where I am… if he gets it a little earlier, so much the better.

I enjoyed King’s On Writing, but they do not serve the same purpose at all. The latter is more autobiographical/advice-oriented, and well… for novelists. The Elements of Style applies to virtually any kind of writing.

dappled_leaves's avatar

*she (sorry).

Aethelflaed's avatar

Hot, especially if the person is going on to college. Some feel it’s not the best book, but it’s also only $8 (often less for a used copy). So I like having it on hand, and then getting other books if need be. And it’s what many of my teachers recommend for help with papers.

morphail's avatar

Elements of Style is a hodgepodge, its now-antiquated pet peeves jostling for space with 1970s taboos and 1990s computer advice. It represents 50 years of stupid grammar advice. Don’t put up with usage abuse: Get Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage instead.

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Jeruba's avatar

I saw @morphail‘s comment on this book, with link, on another thread, went to the link and read the article (“50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice”), and felt vindicated at last for my lifelong lack of enthusiasm for this little book. It makes me think of what my husband says about alyssum: “It’s just a weed with good PR.”

In fact, I cheered at the part about the passive, a much-maligned and much-misunderstood verb form that is in fact perfectly respectable and excellent at its job. I once consoled a woman who had been chastised by her writing teacher for overuse of the passive. She showed me her essay. It contained exactly two instances of passive (“I was born” and “I was adopted”—and how else would you say that?); all the other red-circled constructions were simple uses of the verb “to be” and not passive at all (“The house was small,” “We were poor”).

Reading that article, I thought, now I think I understand where these misguided souls got their misguidance. But what are they doing teaching writing?

If I were a young, aspiring writer, which I was once, I would not be overly thrilled to receive this book, which I would consider the literary equivalent of receiving a box of Kleenex for my birthday. How about something inspiring? Perhaps Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird or Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey or Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones? or a biography of one of her favorite writers? or a subscription to The Writer or Poets and Writers?

When she has finished her college English courses, with their own assigned texts, and if she’s still interested in writing then, that would be the time to find her a good reference book or two.

linguaphile's avatar

Bravo, @Jeruba! I’m an English teacher and studied the history of grammar. Many of our weird grammar rules were created in the early 1800’s when language scholars decided that we needed a more regulated use of English (they wanted to be like the French Academy), so they decided to base their collective decision about correct grammar rules on those from a more lofty and honorable language, Latin. So, our “no double negatives,” “don’t end a sentence with a preposition,” and a good number of other awkward rules really are Latin rules that these grammarians superimposed over English.

So. bravo—I’m glad you came across all those good books and the 50 Years article!!! I’ll have to look that one up.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@Jeruba I actually agree with you – but, as a student, I also think that if a teacher wants me to follow Elements, then it behooves me to recognize them as The Person With The Red Pen and just deal for the time being.

Jeruba's avatar

@Aethelflaed, I absolutely concur. When I edit for a particular publisher or journal, I follow house style on the same principle. No series comma? Ok. Hyphenate “re-examine,” don’t hyphenate “nonnative,” use “he or she” at every instance,” say “depress” rather than “press” the key? I’m a pro, and you’re paying the bill.

In my own writing, I follow the rules that I believe to be soundest. Sometimes I check many references for a single point, and sometimes I go with what I have seen most consistently in the best publications, such as Harper’s and National Geographic. I’m the proud owner of more dictionaries, style guides, and other English-language resources than anyone else I know. And I love them all, even the ones I hate.

@linguaphile, thank you. Learning that aspect of the history of English was very liberating for me. I read Baugh & Cable from cover to cover many years ago, and also Otto Jesperson’s book, and felt exonerated. I used to be death on the split infinitive and went through contortions to correct it. About ten years into my editorial career, I had gained enough confidence to say “A good editor knows when to break the rules,” and I started breaking that one whenever following it required torturing a sentence.

I’ve also just finished reading The Story of Webster’s Third, which gave me more insight than just about any other book so far into the depths of controversy possible when we English speakers begin discussing aspects of our own language.

Not that serving on two company style guide committees hadn’t already shown me how passionately sincere experts can differ. Put twelve top-notch editors and writers in a room, raise the question of hyphenation, and you’d better duck and roll.

linguaphile's avatar

Editors and English teachers… I usually just laugh, duck and roll. I do believe in high standards of writing, but I also know that there are different schools of thought, so why argue about a rule that is sometimes right and sometimes wrong, like hyphenation? :D

There’s something that most “Stylebooks” do not address— Early in my teaching career I got a paper from a girl. She had written 2 pages of perfect grammar, but her whole point could be presented in a very short sentence. That was an eye-opener for me. I had known that writing more than just structure, but I had to move away from the intuitive when I began to give feedback. I started to look more at the content, the depth, the supporting details, the voice and the tone. I regularly get papers with beautiful vocabulary, sentence structure and grammar (sometimes even beautiful tone), but each paragraph is a fancy rewrite of the first point made—I can’t tell you how often those kids get furious with me for daring to criticize their writing. They’ve been oohed and ahhed over for so long for having beautiful writing that they don’t understand that their papers are devoid of content.

I’d much rather deal with an enthusiastic student with awkward grammar, but mountains of content in her paper. Grammar can be worked with, creative and critical thinking’s harder to develop.

I’m coming from an English teacher’s point of view, but if you can, check out the 6 Traits of Writing. I started writing short stories and poems when I was really young, but the 6 Traits helped me evaluate beyond what the stylebooks offer.

@Jeruba You just restocked my summer reading list! Thanks!

Jeruba's avatar

@linguaphile, why argue? Not out of preference, I assure you; most of us would prefer to hold to our standards without having to defend them to peers and concede one point in order to win another.

But let’s say we’re working in a high-tech documentation group, or an educational publishing company, or some other corporate environment where legions of English majors wind up having to toil for a living. When there is a companywide initiative to set style guidelines for all publications staffers to follow for the sake of overall consistency (not to mention “look and feel”), there must be something resembling agreement. Otherwise writers who are trying to reuse as much existing material as possible while making tight deadlines spend huge amounts of time incorporating editorial changes that reverse the decisions made by the preceding editor.

•  I put the hyphen into the compound adjective before a noun; the next editor takes it out.
•  I delete the hyphen between the -ly adverb and the adjective, and the next editor puts it back in.
•  Half the people think you can end, abort, or terminate a process, and the other half feel passionately that “abort” and “terminate” are loaded words that should be banned.
•  Writers who work with editor A for a while and always write “backup” and “login” as one word get justly indignant when they get reassigned to editor B, who treats the noun form differently from the verb phrase and adds spaces accordingly.

This is not productive.

Every time you change your style rules, you cause all prior documents to be out of compliance, and many of them are going to be updated and released again, spreading inconsistency. But if you don’t change them you perpetuate obsolete guidelines, sustain error, fail to adopt industrywide changes (from “Web site” to “website,” for instance), and leave writers and editors to deal with new situations idiosyncratically. Meanwhile writers tear their hair (“Why can’t you guys edit the same? If you make it right once, it should stay right.”) and managers lose patience (“We can’t afford to send documents through two, three, and four editing passes so writers can undo everything they did at the last pass.”).

So style guide committees meet and argue. Ultimately they do it because they’re paid to.

linguaphile's avatar

@Jeruba Wow. I’m glad they do that, because I wouldn’t. I don’t have it in my temperament to be able to do that so, I’ll let them figure it out, then just follow what they decide.

Unfortunately, the standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, NWEA, etc. do not keep up with journalism’s fast changing world. I have to teach archaic rules because that’s what earns the kids points on their tests, but what I do is I teach that the rules are not consistent, will, and do change, and to pay attention to them.

Jeruba's avatar

@linguaphile, I recently attended a small-group presentation and discussion given by the three editors who edit for Yahoo! and created Yahoo!‘s latest style guide. The smaller the team of editors, the more readily they can come to agreement, at least in theory; but my question for the team was how they dealt with the inevitable deadlocks on matters of style when they were updating the style guide. They all laughed, and two of them looked at the third. One of them said, “She’s the senior editor on the team. In the end it was her call.”

The only way to get agreement is to have only one editor. And even that doesn’t always work; sometimes I treat something differently today from what I did yesterday, saying, “I wonder why in the world I did that.”

The foundation of my professional practice is the excellent, clear, and rational tutelage I received from my high school English teacher, to whom I owed my 800 on the SAT. He swore by the ancient Century Handbook of Writing. My chief grammar reference is its spiritual successor, the Harbrace College Handbook.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@linguaphile @Jeruba So if one were studying to take the SAT now, where would one look for grammar guidance and rules?

Jeruba's avatar

@Aethelflaed, I’m not the one to answer that. I haven’t seen the SAT in well over 40 years. I have no idea which set of standards it best reflects or how well I might fare on it today. I’d probably buy a Barron’s handbook if I were concerned about my test score.

I always believed that I was studying (for the test, or, rather, for the education that the test was supposed to measure) throughout my entire secondary education, so I didn’t do anything to prepare for it except get a good night’s sleep and sharpen my number 2 pencils.

linguaphile's avatar

Barrons, yes. Just sit on the floor at Barnes and Noble and ruffle through the whole shelf until you find one that resonates with you. My favorite is the “___ for Dummies” because nothing says you can’t have fun while studying! :D :D

morphail's avatar

Pullum has another more detailed excoriation of “one of the worst things to have happened to English language education in America in the past century”.

Jeruba's avatar

Delighted to read it, @morphail! Thank you.  —Although I was distressed to see in the introduction a reference to a “vice-like grip” and to find in section 2.5 the classic proofreading test item “the the”: The best word order to emphasise the the manner adverb would have the adverb last.

morphail's avatar

What’s wrong with the phrase “vice-like grip”?

jaytkay's avatar

Kung-Fu grip is the preferred usage.

Aethelflaed's avatar

So then, individual teacher’s/editor’s preferences aside, what would your go-to style guide be (both @Jeruba and @linguaphile)?

@linguaphile . I regularly get papers with beautiful vocabulary, sentence structure and grammar (sometimes even beautiful tone), but each paragraph is a fancy rewrite of the first point made—I can’t tell you how often those kids get furious with me for daring to criticize their writing. I think that’s because of page minimums. I’d much rather the requirements be for how much content be included than for page length. I usually go for pithy and concise wording over the verbose (but then again, I never did have much of the poet in me).

Jeruba's avatar

The expression normally refers to a vise, not a vice.

linguaphile's avatar

@Aethelflaed It depends… for grammar I have, seriously, over 20 grammar books including Grammar for Dummies and The Intransitive Vampire XD, but the one I ‘leave offerings at the altar of…’ is this one . For research papers, I like the MLA . For usage of terms, I usually just pull out my copy of the Associated Press stylebook.
My weakness is punctuation… too much Emily Dickinson and e.e. cummings while growing up.

morphail's avatar

@Jeruba According to the OED it’s “vice-like”. The tool is spelled “vise” in the US and “vice” elsewhere. There are quotes by Poe and Emerson with “vice-like”.

No citations for “kung-fu grip” :(

Jeruba's avatar

@Aethelflaed, as I mentioned, I follow whatever style guide is prescribed by the client or publisher I’m working for. Most of the time that has been Chicago, although I edited social science books for so many years that I had APA memorized and actually like that one best. I don’t care for MLA because I find the absence of a comma in in-text citations (Jones 1998) infinitely irritating.

At my son’s recommendation, I’ve just purchased a copy of Garner’s Modern American Usage but haven’t dipped into it yet. It feels like a pair of bricks in the hand, a real weapon if you need one.

My favorite grammar reference is the Hodges’ Harbrace College Handbook. Mine is pretty old. The latest edition (2009) shown at Amazon apparently incorporates MLA style, which was never a part of it before, grammar references and style guides being altogether different things. For quick online reference I like the Online Writing Lab site at Purdue.

@morphail, I never had occasion to know that there was a British/American difference in spelling that word. I see spellings in Poe that I consider to be archaic and so don’t hesitate over; this one never stood out as something other. I see that Pullum’s article was published in the U.K. and uses British spelling throughout. That’s one instance I’m certain to remember now, thanks to you.

Jeruba's avatar

Further note: @morphail, I read half of the Pullum article last night and cheered. I finished it today and must confess with a hard swallow that I have been a which-hunter of the first order, never knowing until now that that was a specious rule. With this article before me, I suddenly find that some of what I took to be solid rock was sand. My own sense of the language had led me to defy Strunk & White’s prohibitions concerning passives, modifiers, propositions, and the rest—not knowing that these prohibitions were idiosyncratic—but I thought the restrictive “that” was solidly rooted in American English even while acknowledging that British English did not make the same distinction. I never suspected that it had no defensible basis in our history.

What accounts for the perennial appeal of this work, then? Is it anything other than size—the mistaken impression that one can grasp all one really needs to know about writing in a painlessly small volume? Is it our chronic (American) susceptibility to the allure of the quick and easy over anything that threatens to take a little effort? How did this seduction occur?

And now for the tough question: if editors and careful writers do follow the that/which rule, regardless of its origin, does that make it correct now after all, by virtue of its acceptance among educated users of the language?

@jaytkay, please choose another gift.

morphail's avatar

Congratulations @Jeruba for changing your opinion in light of the evidence. So many people, when told about the facts of a usage issue like “that/which”, continue to not let the facts get in the way of their opinions.

As for your tough question: yes, if modern writers and editors follow the that/which rule, then what might happen is that restrictive “which” could become much more common than nonrestrictive “which”. If this is actually happening, then maybe the next edition of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage will reflect it. But I still find nonrestrictive “which” in modern novels, at least I think I do.

morphail's avatar

I mixed up the terms “restrictive” and “nonrestrictive” in my last post… when reading, swap the two words for minimum confusion.

Jeruba's avatar

That’s all right, I know what you meant.

I find restrictive “which” in plenty of novels, both American and British. I am sharply aware of it because I’ve regarded it as an error in the American ones. But even though I’ve marked this construction throughout my career, I have also secretly let it go a few times, when context seemed to demand it; and when there is a real reason to use “that which <verb>” I have had to allow it because I couldn’t countenance “that that <verb>” in its place.

Each of the other points on which I have changed my mind over the years, beginning with the split infinitive (as mentioned above), seemed to me to yield to both logic and serviceability, as well as the observed practice of respectable professionals. Now I guess this one has to go. Please don’t congratulate me, though; that sounds a bit like “congratulations on not being an arrogant, pig-headed, closed-minded dogmatist,” as if it were a pleasant surprise.

morphail's avatar

Sorry @Jeruba. I see how that came out wrong.

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