Geoff Pullum has for some time now led the charge against Strunk and White’s “horrid little book”. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of The Elements of Style, Pullum pulls his criticisms together in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
April 16 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a little book that is loved and admired throughout American academe. Celebrations, readings, and toasts are being held, and a commemorative edition has been released.
I won’t be celebrating.
The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students’ grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.
It’s sad. Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write “however” or “than me” or “was” or “which,” but can’t tell you why. The land of the free in the grip of The Elements of Style.
So I won’t be spending the month of April toasting 50 years of the overopinionated and underinformed little book that put so many people in this unhappy state of grammatical angst. I’ve spent too much of my scholarly life studying English grammar in a serious way. English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can’t even tell when they’ve broken their own misbegotten rules.
I grew up, in part, near the Red River, in Kittson County MN, closer to Winnipeg than Fargo. My chief memory of the terrain: flat. But I never realized just how flat until I read this in the NY Times this morning.
…the Red River, though fairly modest compared with some more famous rivers, [is] devilishly hard to predict, partly because of its shallow channel. The Colorado River has been carving out the Grand Canyon for millions of years. The Red, by contrast, dates back to perhaps only a few thousand years before the Pyramids. That means it has not had that long to cut deep channels that can contain water during floods.
On top of that, the river flows very slowly across a pancake-flat landscape. Imagine raising an eight-foot-long sheet of plywood just enough to slip a single sheet of paper under the raised end. The resulting minuscule tilt of the board represents the average slope of the Red River’s bed.
What that means is that the river, when it goes awry during a flood, spills every which way across the countryside.
Kennedy MN, where I lived, is about 15 miles from the river on US 75, and it wasn’t uncommon for the spring thaw to spread the river as far as that highway and beyond. The farmers in that direction, with heavy gumbo soils and late, wet springs, needed Caterpillars to draw their plows, where my uncles and cousins to the north and east of town employed conventional wheeled tractors on their lighter, sandier and better-drained fields.
from the flickr account of one “9 0 0 0“
Time Magazine, via Barry Rithotz
…Tuesday edition. Because sometimes, you know, God just can’t wait.
From the Chronicle of Higher Education
Brigham Young University has rejected an appeal from a student who had completed all the requirements for a degree but saw his diploma withheld last year after he published Men on a Mission, a calendar of buff Mormon missionaries without shirts, the Associated Press reported.
The student, Chad Henry, was excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns the university, over the calendar last July. In September he was told that, to receive his degree, he would need to be reinstated as a member of the Mormon church.
Which reminds me that anyone who hasn’t read Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s wonderful account of how she came to be excommunicated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints really doesn’t know what they are missing.
Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it.
— Mark Twain
A little TLS tease from Andrew Brown.
Sisters, not parent and child
An interesting and important point from John Barton’s essay on conceptions of the afterlife in the current TLS (not online):
Jews and Christians do not of course believe the same things, but the structures of the two faiths are much more similar than people think. This is not surprising, since they are siblings (rather than parent and child), both deriving from the religious culture of Israel in the last few centuries BC (the so-called Second Temple period) with influences from the surrounding Greco-Roman world and its philosophies. The impression that the two religions are so vastly different derives partly from the tendency among Christians to think that Judaism is the same as the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament, as they call it) – whereas in fact the religion of the Second Temple period had changed markedly from that of the ancient Israelites who are the source of the Hebrew Bible; and among Jews, to think of Christianity as a Greek religion only marginally related to Hebrew culture.
E B White, via Sam Smith:
If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.
In nine(!) easy steps. Who knew that getting out of a car was such a production? Hint: not us boys.
In the shadow of Saturn, unexpected wonders appear. The robotic Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn recently drifted in giant planet’s shadow for about 12 hours and looked back toward the eclipsed Sun. Cassini saw a view unlike any other. First, the night side of Saturn is seen to be partly lit by light reflected from its own majestic ring system. Next, the rings themselves appear dark when silhouetted against Saturn, but quite bright when viewed away from Saturn and slightly scattering sunlight, in the above exaggerated color image. Saturn’s rings light up so much that new rings were discovered, although they are hard to see in the above image. Visible in spectacular detail, however, is Saturn’s E ring, the ring created by the newly discovered ice-fountains of the moon Enceladus, and the outermost ring visible above. Far in the distance, visible on the image left just above the bright main rings, is the almost ignorable pale blue dot of Earth.
…I think we should all be as happy as kings.
Joe the Plumber is headed to Israel, to “cover the Gaza conflict from the Israelis’ point of view”. Is he worried about the danger? Not a bit of it.
“Being a Christian, I’m pretty well protected by God, I believe.”
Being a Jew, of course, doesn’t cut it, and Muslims are right out. The solution is obvious, though.
Matt Yglesias a couple of days ago. It’s worth repeating.
Matthew Yglesias: Parallel
Michael Cohen writes:
If Israel dismantled all its settlements tomorrow, Hamas would not turn around and renounce violence; but if Hamas were to recognize Israel the path to reconciliation would be far easier to achieve.
This is totally true. But consider this proposition:
If Hamas were to recognize Israel tomorrow tomorrow, Israel would not turn around and renounce settlements; but if Israel were to dismantle all settlements the path to reconciliation would be far easier to achieve.
That’s also true. But by arbitrarily shifting the standard, so that Israeli actions are judged according to whether or not they would magically cause the other side to become reasonable, whereas Palestinians are merely asked whether or not making unilateral concessions would in some sense make reconciliation easier to achieve, Cohen has managed to put a heavily pro-Israel spin on the banal observation that both sides could do more to improve the situation but that achieving real peace requires steps on both sides.
Meanwhile, of course, there’s still such a thing as ethics and so forth. Vaguely pointing rockets at civilian areas and hoping they kill as many people as possible is wrong, completely independently of whether or not Israel is also doing things that are wrong. I think that’s a point that’s pretty well-appreciated in the American conversation on this. But by the same token, Israeli actions that are wrong are wrong independent of whether or not Hamas is launching rockets.