Thursday, December 9, 2010

English Rulers

The often solitary nature of writing makes it sometimes difficult to gauge one's "progress." It's easy enough to look back at work from a few years ago and shudder at the scribbler one used to be--I giggled with horror at my early college writing from six years ago--but much more difficult to gauge one's present abilities. No one should allow themselves himself to be paralyzed with self-consciousness, but if there is no one way to write rightly, there is certainly a wrong way, often several, and reminders are useful. I went to William Strunk and E.B. White's Elements of Style, a ragged 1979 3rd edition, for just such a purpose. Yet while though much of the advice is still useful, a great deal of it is remarkably, if a little regrettably, obsolete in the information age.

The earliest material, concerning proper grammar, is the most valuable (EDIT: Some dispute this, vehemently.). While vocabulary, idiom, and phrasing has changed a great deal since this style guide was first published, the rules of English sentence construction have remained mostly intact. I still violate rule #1 (Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding 's), preferring to leave off the additional 's' in 'the the dress' seam.' Most of the others, however,dealing with comma placement and tense agreement, are duly observed and will not likely change. A sentence like "Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap," will always be awkward.

Section II, on composition, is likewise sound, focusing on rules of thumb to keep writing concise and focused.

The third section, A Few Matters of Form, is well-heeded, but in many cases unnecessary. Word processing technology allows the writer to manipulate margins and numerals as he sees fit, while syllabication--figuring out where to put a hyphen when splitting a word between two lines--is a nonissue.

Halfway through the advice begins getting dicey. Section IV's list of "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused" is at its best when arguing, as earlier, for streamlining: "acts of a hostile character" is a dressed up way of saying "hostile acts."

But many of the words and misuses cataloged here have edged their way into acceptable usage. It is probably impossible to get a job today without using the words and expressions 'currently,' 'due to,' 'facility,' 'finalize,' or 'utilize,' on a resume or cover letter. 'Prioritize,' and 'finalize,' both "abominations" by White's reckoning, are among a list of action words I was given to use in my job application process. For the linguistic impotence of resume writing, I blame "professionalization" (notice that ugly '-ize' suffix grafted on and further deformed with the 'ation') as a means of screening an ever-growing number of applicants. It's regrettable, but on this front Strunk and White lost, and badly.

Some of their objections, though, amount to straight-up conservatism. I'll actually cop to being partial their arguments in favor of 'he' as the standard third person pronoun with a distributive antecedent:

The use of he as pronoun for nouns embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the English language. He has lost all suggestion of maleness in these circumstances. The word was unquestionably biased to begin with (the dominant male), but after hundreds of years it has become seemingly indispensible. it has no pejorative connotation; it is never incorrect.

But goodness do Strunk and White get cranky:

If you think she is a handy substitute for he, try it and see what happens.

The objection to nouns being converted into verbs is perhaps what jars most with contemporary language. "Many nouns have lately been pressed into service as verbs. Not all are bad, but all are suspect." Besides being slightly ahistorical (Shakespeare did this often: consider Edgar's "He childed as I fathered"), such a rule has no place in a world where Google, Facebook, and YouTube are commonly employed as verbs. Verbing today is not unusual, cliche, or even faddish: it's an unwritten standard.

The internet and its attendant technology, of course, made the bastard English language--a confection of Anglo Saxon, Norman French, Greek, Latin, and any other tongue it fancied--even more promiscuous. 'Refudiate,' 'tweet,' 'podcast,' 'grok,' 'fisk,' to say nothing of the hated acronyms like BRB and OMG that have started to creep into spoken conversation, have proliferated thanks to the abolition of geography that the internet, and especially blogs and social networks, have given us. I suspect White would have looked at blogging with especial contempt, given the ninth rule in the final section, An Approach to Style:

Do not affect a breezy manner

The volume of writing is enormous, these days, and much of it has a sort of windiness about it, almost as though the author were in a state of euphoria. "Spontaneous me," sang Whitman, and, in his innocence, let loose the hordes of uninspired scribblers who would one day confuse spontaneity with genius.

The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that pops into his head is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day.

Though useful in brushing up on the mechanics of English and composition, a considerable amount of The Elements of Style's content is outdated and simply does not apply anymore. Thanks to the internet, the changes in attitude and approach to writing that would have taken decades if not hundreds of years to spread, now are part of a language currency that is constantly in flux. This is not in itself a bad thing: the rise of chatspeak and thoughts 140 characters long has come about in an era where people are writing more than ever before.

With so much rapid change, casting aside some of Strunk and White's pet rules was inevitable. Yet in a small way this is almost irrelevent. The true believer, after all, can now consult William Strunk's ur-text online at his (or her?) convenience.

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