Show: FRESH AIR
Date: AUGUST 23, 1999
Head: Reviewing "Elements of Style"
Sect: News; Domestic
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.
GROSS: In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the writer E.B. White, there's a new edition of "The Elements of Style." That's the classic English usage book that White published in 1959 as an expanded version of a handbook written by his Cornell English professor, William Strunk.
FRESH AIR's linguist, Geoff Nunberg, has been looking through the new edition and has these thoughts.
GEOFF NUNBERG, LINGUIST: "The Elements of Style" is one of the most unlikely best-sellers of the century, with more than 10 million copies in print. A large proportion of these were purchased by high school and college students at the urging of their English teachers. But its coterie isn't limited to the classroom.
It showed up in 21st place on a list compiled by the editors of the Modern Library of the 20th century's 100 best nonfiction books. It came in just behind "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas" and well ahead of works by George Orwell, Edmond Wilson, and Bertrand Russell.
People talk about it with an almost sacramental piety. In a blurb on the front cover of the new edition, Charles Osgood says that he always carries the book around in his pocket. You have the feeling that if he'd had space, he would have gone on to tell you how it once saved him from being impaled by a pencil that a crazed copy editor had lanced at his heart.
This is clearly not a book to tamper with. For the new edition, the publisher has added a gracious introduction by White's stepson, Roger Angel, and a few concessions have been made to modern sensibilities about pronoun gender.
But there have been almost no changes in the tractarian tone of the book, which is cast as a list of peremptory dicta like, "Use concrete language," or "Place the emphatic words of the sentence at the end."
Like most tracts, "The Elements of Style" is a simplistic book. As an intellectual or literary work, it scarcely bears comparison with W.H. Fowler's "Modern English Usage," published about 30 years earlier, which was conspicuously absent from the Modern Library's top 100.
Fowler's book treats style with consistent irony as a complex and subtle problem. There's none of that in "The Elements of Style." It sets down its rules as if they were matters of simple common sense.
And it's only when you look at the rules closely that you realize how arbitrary and unhelpful most of them really are.
Take those general precepts that have endeared the book to generations of copy editors. "Be clear," "Write naturally," "Work from a suitable design." Who could argue with those principles? We all want to be clear -- except perhaps for Alan Greenspan -- and nobody wants to be thought of as unnatural, lord knows.
But how, exactly, are we supposed to get there? It's like opening a book about cooking and finding the injunction, "Be tasty."
And when you look in Strunk and White for more specific advice, you find only a jumble of arbitrary and sometimes questionable prescriptions. The section on word use, for example, consists mostly of a list of those hermetic little fetishes that copy editors have always nurtured in their vitals, most of them without any rational justification.
What's wrong with using "aggravate" to mean "irritate," for example? Dickens did it, and so did Kipling, Melville, Shaw, and John Cheever. After 150 years of precedent, it's hard to see how it could be much of an impediment to clear expression.
And most of the other rules are equally groundless. Don't use "nauseous" to mean "sick at the stomach," don't use "transpire" to mean "happen," don't use "alternative" when more than two choices are involved.
The current edition of "The Elements of Style" even dutifully retains the admonition about using the verb "contact" to mean "get in touch with," which was a favorite bugbear of critics of the '50s, even though the usage goes back to Dreiser and is completely standard by now.
If you really assumed that these rules were just matters of clarity, you'd have to conclude that clarity itself is a pretty mysterious notion.
But most young readers are likely to have a more immediate reaction -- What's your problem?
The book's general advice about usage is no less mystifying. "The Elements of Style" has probably done more than any other book to popularize those categorical principles like, "Use the active voice," "Use nouns and verbs rather than adjectives and adverbs," "Use Anglo-Saxon rather than Latin words."
These are the liturgy of the plain style, canonized in dozens of little books modeled on Strunk and White, not to mention the style checkers that come with word processing systems.
But no good writer would take them seriously. If you did, after all, you'd wind up denying yourself the use of half of the words and constructions that the English language puts at your disposal.
In the end, it's all just special pleading for a particular sort of English style. It's a style that's no less contrived or sophisticated than any other, but it drapes its artifice in a mantle of simplicity.
There's plenty of sound advice in "The Elements of Style." It was the book that first made me aware of the importance of paring down unnecessary words, saying "hostile acts," instead of "acts of a hostile nature." And it's done a lot to discourage that cumbersome expression, "the fact that."
But this useful guidance is buried under a heap of lore and superstition, and it's a safe bet that few of the well-known writers who extol the text actually pay heed to most of the advice it offers.
Like most religious texts, it's more often recommended than obeyed. That comforting simplicity seems to be just the thing to offer to a beginning writer who's apt to be intimidated by the moral complexities of a Fowler.
In its way, "The Elements of Style" is very like "Charlotte's Web," another book that grownups love to give to young people. But "Charlotte's Web" is by far the better work.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.
GROSS: FRESH AIR's interviews and reviews are produced by Amy Sallett (ph), Phyllis Meyers (ph), and Naomi Person (ph), with Alan Tu, Monique Nazareth, Anne-Marie Boldonado (ph), and Cathy Wolfe (ph). Roberta Shorrock directs the show.
I'm Terry Gross.
TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Geoff Nunberg
High: Linguist Geoff Nunberg reviews the new edition of the venerable grammer book "The Elements of Style."
Spec: "The Elements of Style"; Publishing Industry; E.B. White; William Strunk
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Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Reviewing "Elements of Style"
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