Imagine it's a hundred years ago and I'm your teacher in, let's say, a business class. Over the course of the class, I tell you a lot of things. â€œDon't chew gumâ€ comes up on the very first day. â€œNever come lateâ€ is another. â€œKeep financial reports to just one pageâ€ is another, along with, â€œWhen meeting with a prospective employer, always wear a tie or stockings.â€
As the semester goes on, my pithy insights pile up. I realize I should write them down for your convenience. Next thing I know, I have a document almost half as long as a real book and, what's more, it's catching on across campus. Everyone, it seems, wants a copy.
Fast-forward some years. I'm gone now. A clever publisher, along with the help of one of my former students, has discovered that lots of people want this book. They tweak it a little, deleting a section that makes clear I wrote it for students. Cha-ching. Now, all over the country, businesspeople receive my wisdom as if I had been talking directly to them all along.
A woman whose employer told her, â€œCome in late tomorrow,â€ defies his instructions, thus spoiling her own birthday celebration. An accountant goes to prison as a direct result of trying to cram 20 pages' worth of financial data onto a single page. A man who has always taken the â€œDon't chew gumâ€ imperative to heart sees his career dreams shattered in a disastrous job interview with the Wrigley company. Mickey Rourke fails to land his comeback role in â€œThe Wrestlerâ€ because he shows up to the audition wearing a tie and pantyhose. (He was playing it safe. He really needed the work.)
Strunk and White's â€œThe Elements of Styleâ€ celebrated its 50th anniversary this month, complete with media tributes and a live celebration in New York City. â€œElements of Styleâ€ is, no doubt, the most beloved little language book ever, with devoted fans who are all too happy to praise the brilliance of its rules on YouTube.
There's just one problem: â€œThe Elements of Styleâ€ wasn't written for them. It's not a real rule book. It's not a real style book. It was written by one teacher for use in his own classroom a century ago, then later it was marketed to you and me as if it had been written for us all along.
In other words, â€œThe Elements of Styleâ€ is a lot like our business school scenario, just not as funny. People really believe that the possessive of Charles â€” Charles's â€” is formed differently than is the possessive of Jesus, which Strunk says does not take the extra s: Jesus'. People who read Strunk and White's beloved little book assume it's true when they read that â€œhopefullyâ€ cannot be used as a sentence adverb to mean â€œI hope,â€ so they don't bother to get a second opinion from a good dictionary â€” any of which can prove Strunk wrong.
â€œThe Elements of Styleâ€ contains some suggestions that are very helpful to many writers. â€œUse the active voice.â€ â€œOmit needless words.â€ â€œPlace the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.â€ But they are just that: suggestions. Unless people understand that, â€œThe Elements of Styleâ€ could keep spreading bad information for another 50 years.
?JUNE CASAGRANDE is a freelance writer and author of â€œGrammar Snobs Are Great Big Meaniesâ€ and â€œMortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs â€” Even If You're Right.â€ She may be reached at JuneTCN@ aol.com.