January 15, 2005

Don't put up with usage abuse

A correspondent in Arizona (he writes his name as zeiran r'ei, the lower case and apostrophe being apparently mandatory) emails me to say he had not heard about Strunk and White's The Elements of Style until I mentioned it. (I feel awful, of course: his life had been free of that horrid little notebook of nonsense, and now I have drawn it to his attention by ranting about it. I should watch my big mouth.) However, on checking the Amazon.com reviews zeiran found that my harsh views of the book are very much a minority opinion. So he asked me:

Is there an objective final authority here, as far as disputes of grammar or style?

Regardless of authority, how should such disputes be best resolved?

Very good questions. A full reply would be a book about the whole notion of grammatical correctness. (One such book, very enjoyable and easy to read, is Proper English by Ronald Wardhaugh, published by Basil Blackwell in 1999; ISBN: 0631212698; $28.95 in paperback; yesterday for some reason I mistakenly gave this title as "Proper Grammar" despite actually having the book in front of me when I wrote, but I have now transcribed it correctly.) But I can offer a short answer along the lines of my reply to Zeiran.

The first thing to say is that the only possible way to settle a question of grammar or style is to look at relevant evidence. I suppose there really are people who believe the rules of grammar come down from some authority on high, an authority that has no connection with the people who speak and write English; but those people have got to be deranged. How could there possibly be a rule of grammar that had nothing with the way the language is used or has been used by the sort of people who are most admired for their skill with it? What motive could there possibly be for following some rule if it had no connection to the actual practice of the sort of people you would like to be counted among, or regarded as similar to, with regard to the use of the language? Face it: a rule of English grammar that doesn't have a basis in the way expert writers deploy the English language (or the way expert speakers speak it when at their best) is a rule that has no basis at all.

The reason the question can even arise at all is partly that Strunk and White fail to make that connection. The Elements of Style offers prejudiced pronouncements on a rather small number of topics, frequently unsupported, and unsupportable, by evidence. It simply isn't true that the constructions they instruct you not to use are not used by good writers. Take just one illustrative example, the advice not to use which to begin a restrictive relative clause (the kind without the commas, as in anything else which you might want). But the truth is that once E.B. White stopped pontificating and went back to writing his (excellent) books, he couldn't even follow this advice himself (nor should he; it's stupid advice). You can find the beginning of his book Stuart Little on the official E.B. White website; and you can see him breaking his own rule in the second paragraph. That isn't the only such example. (For another one out of the dozens I could give, see my post ‘Those who take the adjectives from the table’.)

Where, then, can one get evidence of what decent writers really do, as opposed to what Strunk and White wrongly imagine decent writers do, given that they simply lie about it? The unhelpful answer would be that you read millions of words of fine prose and remember what you've seen. But there is a shortcut you can use to get to that evidence: get hold of a really good usage book. And the best usage book I know of right now is Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage (ISBN: 0-87779-633-5). This book — I'll call it MWCDEU for short — is utterly wonderful. Detailed, but tight-packed, and great value (exactly 800 pages for $16.95 — roughly 2 cents per page plus the cost of a small regular coffee).

I own no stock in the Merriam-Webster company and get no commissions on sales. If they published a rubbishy book, I'd tell you. And if The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language were better for this purpose, I'd definitely say so; but it isn't — not if you want usage advice as opposed to systematic and detailed grammatical description. The Cambridge Grammar is big and somewhat technical, and doesn't cite literary examples, and it doesn't give advice. The book you need is MWCDEU. Throw your Strunk & White away, and hang the pages on a nail in the guest outhouse for emergency use. Or tear out the pages and use them as liner paper for the bottom of the parrot cage, if you have a parrot (change the paper at least weekly, and wash your hands afterwards). Then get hold of MWCDEU, and keep it away from the parrot (parrots are jealous birds and will tear up things they can see you value).

MWCDEU explains what actually occurs, shows you some of the evidence, tells you what some other usage books say, and then leaves you to make your own reasoned decision. It won't tell you either that you should split infinitives, or that you shouldn't. But it will give you a number of examples of writers who do, and point out that the construction has always occurred in English literature over the last six or seven centuries, and that nearly all careful usage books today agree it is entirely grammatical, and it will then leave you to decide.

In other words it treats you like a grown-up. Strunk and White treat you like the abused 9-year-old daughter of a pair of grumpy dads ("Omit needless words, damn you! And fetch my slippers. And bring his slippers too. Now fix our supper. And don't let us hear you beginning any sentences with however"). Don't put up with the abuse.

Thanks to Barbara Scholz for pointing out some errors in the first version.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 15, 2005 01:25 PM