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The Word

Clever horses

Unhelpful advice from 'The Elements of Style'

By Jan Freeman
April 12, 2009
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THIS WEEK MARKS the 50th anniversary of "The Elements of Style," the best-selling usage manual consisting of E.B. White's additions to (and revisions of) a 1918 "little book" by William Strunk Jr., once White's professor at Cornell. To celebrate, the publisher is offering a revised, updated . . .

Oops, never mind. To celebrate, the publisher is offering the same old fourth edition - published in 1999, and itself insufficiently revised from the 1979 version - tarted up in black leather binding. What could be less essential?

I've cursed the dimness of Strunk & White on earlier occasions. (You could look it up.) This time, I thought I would light a few candles instead, hoping to illuminate some of the murkier usage rules mummified in the book's most antiquated chapter, "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused." Think of this commentary as the missing footnotes; you can print it out and glue it into your paperback "Elements," and you'll have done more for the book than leather covers can.

The strangest entry has always been the word clever. Strunk had merely remarked that the word was overused; White's 1959 version added the caution, "Note that the word means one thing when applied to people, another when applied to horses. A clever horse is a good-natured one, not an ingenious one."

Where did that come from? Well, starting in the 18th century, Americans took to using clever to mean "pleasant, amiable," sometimes with the added connotation "not too bright." The usage was already faded enough that Strunk, in 1918, didn't bother to mention it.

In New England, though, clever meaning "amiable" was used of animals as well as people - and this quirk lasted into the 20th century. So White - who spent summers in Maine as a child, and later bought his own farm there - probably learned it from his Down East neighbors. That doesn't explain why he thought the "clever horse" alert belonged in "Elements of Style"; by 1959, he had to know the usage was a waning regionalism. Maybe its inclusion was simply a private joke; after all, he had no idea that his little book would still be selling when the clever distinction was a distant memory.

Another perplexing entry concerns persons and people. "The word people is not to be used with words of number, in place of persons," Strunk insisted in 1918. "If of 'six people' five went away, how many 'people' would be left?"

Strunk's zinger was not original, however. Ben Zimmer, executive editor of the Visual Thesaurus website, found a version of it in an 1897 issue of a New York literary journal, where a letter writer complained that "Mr. Howells . . . in one of his delightful novels speaks of 'three people' sitting in a room. Now, if two of these 'people' were to withdraw, one 'people' would be left - and very much left! It seems unnecessary to state . . . that 'people' is a collective noun."

In fact, this was a new idea; the ban on people for persons, one of the many arbitrary rulings generated by the 19th century's orgy of distinction-making, is not mentioned before 1870. But five centuries earlier, Chaucer had had no problem with countable "people." The Oxford English Dictionary quotes his lines from "The Knight's Tale" (c. 1385): "The palace full of people, up and down, here three, there ten" (spelling modernized). There's no reason person can't serve as a singular of people.

Then there's contact, stigmatized as "vague and self-important." This one is entirely White's; in Strunk's day contact was not in wide enough use for the peevologists to notice it. But White is censorious enough for two: "Do not contact people; get in touch with them, look them up, phone them, find them, or meet them." (Or text them, or tweet them?)

Contact, which is useful (now more than ever) precisely because it is "vague," was one of those verbings that just rubbed traditionalists the wrong way. One vigorous opponent was a Western Union official, F.W. Lienau, who's quoted in Mencken's "American Language" (1936). Somewhere, he said, there's "a man who, for the common good, should have been destroyed in early childhood. He is the originator of the hideous vulgarism of using contact as a verb." ("Mr. Lienau's indignation had no effect," added Mencken.)

Other words on the "Elements" list are more familiar; still, a lot of them are barely twitching these days. Would nauseous (for "nauseated"), fix (for "repair"), and offputting be in your top 90 word-usage worries? Or claim for "assert" ("he claimed his car was stolen")? Or thrust, which must have been in vogue among the admen of the '50s? The least we can do is to teach college students the current language prejudices, not the ones their great-grandparents nurtured. It would be simple to modernize this part of "Elements"; both the publishers who neglect it and the teachers who accept it without protest are helping to promote mediocrity.