October 28, 2004

Red Sox win

You are probably thinking that even the seguemeisters of Language Log cannot find a linguistic angle to the fact that the Red Sox just won the World Series. Over at Brian Weatherson's Thoughts, Arguments and Rants, all pretense at philosophical content disappeared: "Go Sox! Go Sox!! Boston is Champion of the World!!!" wrote the philosopher proprietor and fanatical Red Sox fan. Philosophy only came back onto the agenda in a parenthesis, as Brian realized it would be morally wrong to encourage property damage: "(But don't burn down too much of Boston in celebrating this fact - we'd miss it.)"

I promise you, though, I do have a linguistic connection for Red Sox fans. If you would like to read on.

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Regular readers will be able to name my least favorite book in the world: it is Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, a horrid little compendium of unmotivated prejudices (don't use ongoing), arbitrary stipulations (don't begin a sentence with however), and fatuous advice ("Be clear"), ridiculously out of date in its positions on appropriate choices among grammatical variants, deeply suspect in its style advice and grotesquely wrong in most of the grammatical advice it gives. (Don't make me go on; if you want an hour-long lecture on the demerits of this beastly little book, that can be arranged.) One of the things that worries me about the number of Americans who seem to treasure this little piece of trash, now in its fourth edition since it was revived in the 1950s after E. B. White undertook a light revision of an earlier version by Strunk and added a chapter on style, is that they just don't realize how absurdly old it is — that it is pretty much not even a work of the last century, but rather reflects ideas formed in the one before that.

White agreed to revise and expand Strunk's little book for the reissue in 1959 because he already revered it. Strunk had been one of his professors at Cornell. He vividly remembered Strunk positively shouting vacuous slogans like "Omit needless words!" at him, and apparently he thought it was wonderful. The interesting thing is about when it was that White took that course.

Strunk had been born in 1869. That is, he was old enough to read the news when General Custer led his men to massacre at the Little Big Horn. Strunk was a grownup with a Ph.D. when Dracula was first published. By the time White was his student and had to buy the privately published precursor of what would become Strunk & White, the professor had reached the age of 50. It was 1919.

It's no wonder Strunk's view about a phrase like everyone in the community, whether they are a member of the Association or not was that it should be "corrected" to everyone in the community, whether he is a member of the Association or not: women still didn't have the vote in America, so who would care if this sort of use of he excluded them. Prohibition was newly adopted; the Model T Ford was on sale; the Treay of Versailles was being readied for signature to formally end the First World War.

But what I'm saying about the extreme age of the outdated nonsense in Strunk & White can perhaps best be put like this: White's formative experience in Strunk's class was so long ago that the Red Sox had just won the World Series the year before.

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Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 28, 2004 11:43 AM