English language Uncategorized

Happy Birthday, Strunk and White!

Pat is a guest contributor to a discussion on the New York Times blog Room for Debate to mark the 50th anniversary of the popular usage and grammar guide Elements of Style. Here are her comments:

We’ve Moved On

Rereading Strunk and White on its 50th birthday is like meeting an old lover and realizing how much you’ve outgrown him. Things have changed, little book, and you have not, or not enough.

Oh, the first 14 pages are still the gospel truth. And I still love the things I loved most — the “Elementary Principles of Composition” and the reminders at the end of the book. Any young person prone to getting tattoos might consider having a few of these permanently engraved where they can readily be seen: Omit needless words. Use concrete language. Be clear. Avoid fancy words. Revise and rewrite. Pure gold.

But much of the grammar and usage advice in the rest of the book is baloney, to use a good concrete word. “He” has not been the default pronoun for both genders since “the beginnings of the English language” (only since the mid-18th century). Nobody these days uses “shall” instead of “will” in the first-person future tense.

The advice on “data” and “media” is outdated, as is some of the stuff about verbs. I see nothing wrong — and neither does Merriam-Webster’s — with “loan” or “state” as verbs, or “fix” to mean mend, or “gotten” as a participle for “get.” Nor am I losing sleep over “certainly” and “prestigious” and “offputting.”

Finally, “six persons” is not better than “six people.” Show me a guy who invariably says “six persons” and I will show you a fathead. But Happy Birthday anyway, Strunk and White.

For the rest of the debate, click here. And for more myths and misconceptions about the English language, check out Origins of the Specious, the new book that I’ve written with my husband, Stewart.