February 19, 2005

No smooth ride is as valuable as a rough ride

Several readers have written to defend E.B. White, and I feel bad about overstating his adjective content, so I've invited him here to speak on his own behalf.

(From a letter to J.G. Case, White's editor at Macmillan for The Elements of Style, dated 17 December 1958.)

I was busy working a lot of your and Miss N's suggestions into the text, wherever we were in agreement, when your letter came along (December 12th date) and stopped me cold. Do you remember that wonderful moment in the McCarthy hearings when Mr. Welch turned to Mr. Cohn and in his high, friendly voice asked, "And now, Mr. Cohn, when you found that one-third of the photograph was missing, were you saddened?" (Such a wonderful verb for little Mr. Cohn.) Anyway, I was saddened by your letter -- the flagging spirit, the moistened finger in the wind, the examination of entrails, and the fear of little men. I don't know whether Macmillan is running scared or not, but I do know that this book is the work of a dead precisionist and a half-dead disciple of his, and that it has got to stay that way. I have been sympathetic all along with your qualms about "The Elements of Style," but I know that I cannot, and will-shall not, attempt to adjust the unadjustable Mr. Strunk to the modern liberal of the English Department, the anything-goes fellow. Your letter expresses contempt for this fellow, but on the other hand you seem to want his vote. I am against him, temperamentally and because I have seen the work of his disciples, and I say the hell with him. If the White-Strunk opus has any virtue, any hope of circulation, it lies in our keeping its edges sharp and clear, not in rounding them off cleverly.

In your letter you are asking me to soften up just a bit, in the hope of picking up some support from the Happiness Boys, or, as you call them, the descriptivists. (I can write you an essay on like-as, and maybe that is the answer to all this; but softness is not.) I am used to being edited, I like being edited, and I have had the good luck and the pleasure of being edited by some of the best of them; but I have never been edited for wind direction, and will not be now. Either Macmillan takes Strunk and me in our bare skins, or I want out. I feel a terrible responsibility in this project, and it is making me jumpy. I ask your forgiveness and your indulgence.

The above, written by the below, are, of course, fighting words, and will, I am sure, bring you out of your corner swinging. But I think it is best that I get them down on paper. I want to get back to work, make progress, and make a good book; and until we get this basic thing straightened out, there isn't much chance. It is ghostly work, at best; and surrounded as I have been lately by a corps of helpers, all of them trying to set me on the right path, it is unnerving work [footnote: Case had commissioned three or four grammarians well versed in the textbook field to submit suggestions to White]. Your letter did unsettle me on a number of counts.

All this leads inevitably to like-as, different than, and the others. I will let them lay for the moment, sufficient unto this day being the etc. My single purpose is to be faithful to Strunk as of 1958, reliable, holding the line, and maybe even selling some copies to English Departments that collect oddities and curios. To me no cause is lost, no level the right level, no smooth ride as valuable as a rough ride, no like interchangeable with as, and no ball game anything but chaotic if it lacks a mound, a box, bases, and foul lines. That's what Strunk was about, that's what I am about, and that (I hope) is what the book is about. Any attempt to tamper with this prickly design will get nobody nowhere fast.


E.B. White

P.S. When I said, above, that Macmillan would have to take me in my bare skin, I really meant my bare as.

Lane Greene, "trying to channel a dead man", wrote to me yesterday that

I bet that if you could get a few drinks into EB White, he'd defend himself against the charge of hypocrisy with this: S & W is intended for bad writers and young ones, not for talented adult ones like himself. Its strictures, including its style strictures, are simple and unbending because that's what non-professionals understand. One characteristic of immature writing is definitely needless words, and to get college freshmen to churn out a decent 3-point, 5-paragraph essay making a tight argument, it's probably good advice. On the other hand, a good writer knows just when to be wordy and when to be sparse. That kind of writer, I'll bet White would admit, is not going to blindly take (and should not blindly take) stylistic prescriptions from Strunk and White...

I responded that I object much less to the book, which is a fine specimen of the genus of idiosyncratic usage rants, than to its reception as the foundational scripture of a strange stylistic fundamentalism.

A few weeks ago, I met a lawyer who tried to enlist me in support of his crusade to get the other members of his firm to banish sentences beginning with however-in-the sense-of-nevertheless. He was convinced that this must be a valid principle, since he had once read it in Strunk and White, but when his colleagues asked him for some better argument than an appeal to that authority, he came up blank. On learning that I'm a linguist, he eagerly begged me to reveal to him the reasons behind this rule, trusting naively that they must exist.

No, I told him, as far as I know it's just something that Willie Strunk made up. Classic English essays are full of examples like this one from Edmund Burke: "However, they did not think such bold changes within their commission." If you want to treat writing as a game that is more fun for those who obey Stunk's whims, suit yourself; but it won't do to pretend that either logic or custom compels you.

Just for the record, in the passage from White's letter quoted above, I count 47 adjectives in 646 of White's words, or 7.3%. This is a mere 22% more than the norm for English prose as a whole, and about 9% less than the norm for academic writing. Fair is fair.


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 19, 2005 06:46 AM