Style, style, and more style

This isn’t the kind of post that’s going to get folks writing under a pseudonym to keep coming back to this blog, but it is the kind of thing I’m actually academically interested in….

I found this article published in The Chronicle of Higher Ed, “Style: a Pleasure for the Reader, or the Writer?” by Ben Yagoda. To give due credit, I should point out I found it after reading this entry on Jeff’s site. Given that I teach a class called “Writing, Style, and Technology,” and one of the books we read in that class is indeed Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, I have A LOT I could say about this Yagoda article. But, relatively speaking, I’ll limit myself:

* Overall, I think the article is pretty good and I might even try to work it in as assigned reading next semester. I do think though that Jeff is right that Yagoda seems to be rude or at least at odds with his own point of making style less about rules and simplicity when, toward the end of the piece, he writes:

“Of course, anyone who’s ever been hired to turn a couple of dozen undergraduates into competent writers will discern at least two problems with the notion of putting individual style on the syllabus. To put it bluntly, not just students but a vast number of our citizens are poor writers. A sort of triage is clearly called for: Sloppiness, mistakes, clichés, jargon, and obfuscations need to be addressed before one moves on to finer points of style and voice.”

But as Jeff points out in his post, “…you can’t critique Strunk and White for over-emphasizing petty grammar points then turn to “the finer points” as ultimate goal.” Which gets us back to the basic question what is (or isn’t) style.

* In terms of the way I teach about “Style,” I think there’s a difference between “style” and “voice.” I would agree with Yagoda that this wasn’t always so– certainly it wasn’t always so with the ancient Greeks and Romans– but for better or worse, and possibly because of Strunk and White, this is the world we live in. Style tends to be more concerned with “the right way” of writing or speaking, given the purpose and audience. Voice tends to be more about individuals.

* I don’t think Strunk and White’s book is very concerned about readers at all, frankly. I think the first part, this oddly ordered list of grammar rules, speaks to Strunk’s need to make sure his students didn’t waste his time with a bunch of mistakes. In other words, the “reader” Strunk has in mind is Strunk, and the texts that he has in mind are his students early 20th century “college themes,” as they were probably called. And in the last chapter, generally attributed to White, he says something along the lines of writers should write for themselves alone and not worry so much what other might thing. Or something like that.

* I don’t think that Joseph Williams is all that interested in “simplicity,” at least not in the same way that Strunk and White are interested in simplicity, and at least not in the book that I assign in “Writing, Style, and Technology,” Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. This is slightly different than the book Yagoda cites, which is the textbook Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. I use the one that isn’t the textbook because it’s basically the same thing as the textbook but about $30 cheaper.

Anyway, Williams might be saying that “less is more” and “the more simple, the better” in some sense. But he also spends a great deal of time writing about how sometimes, the most “direct” word or approach is not necessarily an “easy” or “simple” one. Further, he has a chapter on “Length” that talks about the differences between long and well-managed sentences versus those that “sprawl” out of control.

* I’m sure there’s LOTS of stuff that Strunk and White are spinning in their cliched graves about, and most of them probably have to do with their own book. Strunk died in the 40s, White died in 1985, and the version of Elements my students buy came out in 2000 or 2002. Some of the changes that were made with that edition are striking and speak volumes about the different era that Strunk and White lived in, one that was genteel, white, upper-middleclass, and very male. I do an exercise in class where we compare the 1978 (I think) edition with the current one, and some of the differences in examples and even rules are dramatically different. Look up the use of the word “they” as a pronoun instead of “he” or “she” in the most recent version and then look it up an older verson to see what I mean. Or look at the sentence examples in the older versions of the book and note the roles of women and men. Or look at the literary examples in the older book and note all the “dead white guys,” versus the more “culturally aware and diverse” examples in the newer edition.

Little differences? Sure, probably. But they do make a difference, I think.

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