A WORD, PLEASE:

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. “Don't chew gum” comes up on the very first day. “Never come late” is another. “Keep financial reports to just one page” is another, along with, “When meeting with a prospective employer, always wear a tie or stockings.”

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, “Come in late tomorrow,” 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 “Don't chew gum” 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 “The Wrestler” 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 “The Elements of Style” celebrated its 50th anniversary this month, complete with media tributes and a live celebration in New York City. “Elements of Style” 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: “The Elements of Style” 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, “The Elements of Style” is a lot like our business school scenario, just not as funny. People really believe that the possessive of Charles — Charles's — 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 “hopefully” cannot be used as a sentence adverb to mean “I hope,” so they don't bother to get a second opinion from a good dictionary — any of which can prove Strunk wrong.

“The Elements of Style” contains some suggestions that are very helpful to many writers. “Use the active voice.” “Omit needless words.” “Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.” But they are just that: suggestions. Unless people understand that, “The Elements of Style” could keep spreading bad information for another 50 years.


?JUNE CASAGRANDE is a freelance writer and author of “Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies” and “Mortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs — Even If You're Right.” She may be reached at JuneTCN@ aol.com.

Copyright © 2019, Glendale News-Press
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°