Obsessing over grammar

Twelve years ago, while teaching Latin at a local high school, I was discussing a point of grammar — I think it had to do with the dative case and indirect objects — when one of the brighter students in the class interrupted me and said plaintively, “Could you please explain what an indirect object is? Most of us haven’t had this stuff since the fourth grade.”

Before 1970, most students had grammar drilled into their heads through middle school. Then came the changes wrought by that era, and grammar, like memorization and other archaic fixtures of learning, fell before the winds of novelty and creativity. To study grammar, punctuation, and syntax in many schools, public and private, was regarded as antiquated as — well, as the study of Latin. The consequent lack of language fundamentals so damaged the writing abilities of students that by the 1980s many universities, including those of the Ivy League, were forced to open writing labs and other courses in basic composition for incoming freshmen.

In the No. 1 British bestseller, Eats, Shoot & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, published in the United States in 2004, Lynne Truss attacked the sloppy usage of our times, generated both by low educational standards and by digital communication such as emails and text messaging. Her book pointed out to its readers the importance of being a stickler in matters of punctuation and diction, and the harm done to the clarity of language when we fail to follow these rules.

Another book which should cause a similar uptick in matters grammatical is Mark Garvey’s Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (ISBN 978-1-4165-9092-7, 2009, $22.99, 208 pages).

Nearly everyone who has gone to college, or who has wondered through a bookstore, is familiar with The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. (Elwyn Brooks) White. This book is, indeed, so much a part of American literary culture that, as Garvey reminds us, we couple their names “Strunk and White” (often pronounced as “strunkenwhite) much as we do “Rogers and Hammerstein, the Wright brothers, Tracy and Hepburn, Lennon-McCartney.”

William Strunk Jr., a professor of English at Cornell University, self-published The Elements of Style in 1918, a small book intended for the instruction of his students regarding certain points of English grammar and punctuation. E.B. White, who joined the professor’s classes as a student in 1919 and left those same classes as Strunk’s friend, used the little book, but forgot about it after his graduation. After a few years of struggling, White landed on the staff of the newly launched New Yorker magazine. Throughout this time, he maintained a correspondence with Strunk.

Eleven years after Strunk’s death, however, a friend mailed White a copy of the professor’s book. Rereading The Elements of Style aroused in White feelings of nostalgia and admiration, and he devoted one of his New Yorker columns to the book. An editor at the Macmillan Company, Jack Case, read the article, contacted White, and made an arrangement for publication of The Elements of Style in which White would add his own thoughts on style to the original book.

First published in 1959, “Strunkenwhite” has since gone through four editions and sold well over 10 million copies.

In Stylized, Garvey gives us the above bare-bone facts in the first few pages of the book. These are fascinating in themselves, for those who have used The Elements of Style, but to these bones, Garvey adds flesh, nerve, and sinew. He spends the first half of the book describing the careers of both Strunk and White — the description of Strunk’s training in languages reminds us once again of the high educational standards of the late nineteenth century both here and abroad — their interest in the English language, their intelligent and often witty correspondence.

Although he continues to examine the lives of both men in the remaining pages of Stylized, Garvey also devotes a good number of pages to the devotees and the detractors of The Elements of Style. Those authors who sing the praises of Strunk and White range from Stephen King to Dave Barry. Frank McCourt, the author of Angela’s Ashes who, interestingly, wrote the Foreword to Eats, Shoots & Leaves, brought The Elements of Style into his classes at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. He writes that the lessons he drew from it, the lessons he tried to pass along to his students, were:

“Clarity, clarity, clarity — and get rid of adornment and unnecessary words. I went right along with it because I like to get to the point in writing anyway ... And that’s why I think I had a particular feeling about Strunk and White — because of their insistence, and because of White’s good humor about it more than Strunk. Strunk is funny in his hardheadedness; White is even funnier. It’s almost as if they’re a vaudeville pair.”

Garvey lets the detractors throw their punches, but at times he steps into the ring as a defender. In response to Geoffrey Pullum’s attack on The Elements and its admonition to delete adjectives as much as possible — Pullum wrote that “You don’t get good at writing by deleting adjectives” — Garvey rejoins that White wasn’t necessarily opposed to adjectives. Garvey writes that White’s “point ... is that instead of relying on a modifier to prop up a weak noun or verb, writers should work harder to discover and employ stronger, more precise nouns and verbs.”

Stylized will delight those who are already in the “Strunkenwhite” entourage as well as entice newcomers to join them. Garvey deserves high praise for making all of us more familiar with this famous duo.

Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style by Mark Garvey.

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