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Return of the living dead

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April September 6, 2008 04:34 PM

Oh, no -- it's back! Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post's book critic, has favored readers with a back-to-school appreciation of Strunk and White's unkillable usage manual, "The Elements of Style":

For half a century "The Elements of Style" has been my constant companion. ... It is that to this day, and if someone wants to toss it in the box with me when I go six feet under, that would be fine; it might actually assure my passage through the Pearly Gates, since Saint Peter no doubt is a gentleman of impeccable grammatical taste.

But Yardley, who calls himself a Strunkaholic, credits the wrong author with some of the rules he finds so helpful. The 1959 book (and later editions) is packed with midcentury fetishes that E.B. White subscribed to, but that Strunk -- already deceased when White took on the expansion of Strunk's "little book," published in 1918 --- had not.

Yardley notes, for instance, that Strunkaholics mustn't confuse which and that. Strunk, however, did not follow this rule: He uses the restrictive which that White theoretically opposes. For instance, Strunk says:

Thanking you in advance. This sounds as if the writer meant, "It will not be worth my while to write to you again." Simply write, "Thanking you," and if the favor which you have requested is granted, write a letter of acknowledgment.

But wait, there's more: Even E.B. White used restrictive which (or perhaps left out a comma?) on the first page of "Stuart Little," as Geoffrey Pullum noted at Language Log: ''Mrs. Little ... weighed him on a small scale which was really meant for weighing letters."

And if Strunk believed that none must take a singular verb -- a "rule" unknown for most of the history of English -- I can't find him saying so in the little book. Usage tastes changed between Strunk's heyday and White's, just as they have changed since 1959.

As I wrote a few years ago, the book has a lot of silly or half-explained "rules" and a little advice about writing that's fine if you're already a good enough writer to apply it.

But treating "Elements" as a bible of good usage is literally laughable. Read through the chapter on "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused": If you can get past the entry for "Clever" with a straight face, you've got too much self-control for your own good.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at freeman@globe.com.
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