When it comes to English usage I live a conflicted life.
Intellectually I am a descriptivist: English (indeed all widely spoken languages) is a living language, constantly in flux, its written form racing to catch the patterns of speech of linguistic pioneers – those who are inventing and borrowing and just generally expressing themselves. From this point of view, the job of the lexicographer is to document usage, while the job of the grammarian is to analyse the new constructions and understand their origins.
Emotionally though I am a prescriptivist – an enforcer of rules: I object to mis-placed punctuation, make jokes about malapropisms, and generally bask in a self-righteous glow when it comes to matters of usage for I Am Right. There are rules which need to be followed to express yourself clearly, and I am a colossal pedant who constantly struggles to rein in the shouty voice.
It was therefore an emotional purchase when I bought Strunk & White, that little book of poison masquerading as writing advice. When I read it, though, my intellectual side recoiled – its advice was at best fatuous and trite, but it was also often wrong and just as often ignored in the text of the book itself.
The definitive take down of this tragically influential book is from Geoffrey Pullum, an acerbic linguist who contributes to Language Log amongst many other more relevant achievements. I’m not going to repeat Mr Pullum’s analysis here, but I will wait while you go and read it.
Welcome back. Fun, wasn’t it?
I really do understand the allure of Strunk & White – it is small and it is definite, but English is neither of those things and relying on such a slight book as your only reference is not learning to write well – it is abrogating your responsibility to learn your craft.
There are better books out there to learn from.
- Usage and Abusage is entertaining.
- Fowler’s Modern English Usage gives a British angle on authoritative usage, while Garner’s Modern American Usage manages the American style with a little more panache.
- The Guardian and Economist style guides are both lighter and (I would argue) more current than the venerable Chicago book.
Or just read good writing to see how it is done, and bad writing to see how it should not.
In the latter category, you could always start with Strunk & White.