Remembering Joseph Williams

I heard via the WPA-L mailing list that Joseph Williams, the author of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (and a series of textbooks based on this) passed away over the weekend. In never knew the man, but the book is one I’ve been using for a number of years in English 328, the undergraduate course I teach very frequently here. It’s just an excellent book, probably the best academic book I know about how to “write well” in an academic/clear/correct sort of way. Besides just offering really solid advice, I like it because it’s not even remotely simple and because it runs circles around Strunk and White’s famous little book. And that was his purpose, too. Right there on page one, Williams begins with a less than veiled dig at S&W’s “do and don’t” list of a book:

This is a book about writing clearly. I wish it could be short and simple like some others more widely known, but I want to do more than just urge writers to “Omit Needless Words” or “Be Clear.” Telling me to “Be clear” is like telling me to “Hit the ball squarely.” I know that. What I don’t know is how to do it. To explain how to write clearly, I have to go beyond platitudes.

Oh, Snap! Right freakin’ on, Prof. Williams, right on.

And that’s just what he does in 200 rich (and admittedly sometimes difficult) pages, wrapping up in a “grammar” chapter where, to explain supposedly “incorrect” uses of English (e.g., never begin a sentence with “and” or “but,” use “between” with two, “among” with more, split infinitives, etc.), he uses examples from other grammar books and the like where they break the rules. Right on again.

Anyway, I don’t know a whole lot about the man beyond this (and a few other) books and a few posts to the WPA-L mailing list. But if his attitude and wit is anywhere close to what it is in this book, I’ll bet he was a fun guy to know. He apparently died in his sleep from (as of yet) unknown causes, which I think is the way that most of us would like to go out of this world. So Joe, rest in peace, and thanks for helping out both me and my students (or is that my students and I?) learn a lot more about writing, style, clarity, and grace.

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