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Against (Strunk &) White Supremacy
The Limits of Style
A few days ago, the self-anointed priests of journalistic expression from the AP Stylebook (aka., The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law) reminded us that it is improper to refer to ships, storms, nations, or any number of beloved and powerful things after a feminine fashion. Hence it is quite improper, according to these Keepers of the True Flame, for pirates to exclaim “Thar she blows!” when a great whale or sizable storm is glimpsed portside. But I suspect that the legend of Captain Barbossa wouldn’t be as interesting if we were to learn that he stayed up nights, pacing that peg leg up and down the deck, worried that he had assumed the gender of Queen Anne’s Revenge.
Likewise, it just seems like bad manners to go on referring to a lady as an “it” when she has declared herself Katrina, or Sandy, or Irma. If you really want to whip up a storm, try that at home and see what happens. “And where is your dear wife,” some polite dinner guest may inquire. “Aww, it’s in the kitchen where it belongs, rustling up some grub,” you reply. The autopsy will find arsenic, the sheriff will find motive, and a jury of her peers will find her justified.
Some would have us believe that the fences which circumscribe the Queen’s English are the lexical equivalent of natural law; fixed, unmalleable, and eternally unyielding. The overly scrupulous fusspots— The Guardians of the Ancient Precepts—often strain at grammatical gnats while swallowing communicative camels. They tithe from every jar in the syntactical spice rack, but they omit the weightier matters of the law. For them, saying everything correctly is more important than saying it clearly. But it ain’t necessarily so.
For instance, Strunk and White’s, The Elements of Style, so often recommended to every aspiring writer, descends from the bookshelf like Moses with stone tablets fresh from Sinai’s lofty crag. "Use nouns and verbs,” they command; “avoid adjectives and adverbs.” “Keep related words together,” they adjure. But then they turn right around and break the same laws with all the shamefacedness of the Pharisees.
Consider that last dictum: “Keep related words together.” Strunk and White explain further, “The subject of a sentence and the principal verb should not, as a rule, be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning.” But this is precisely what they do not do. Their explanatory sentence is a negative passive, containing an adjective, with the subject separated from the principal verb by a phrase (“as a rule”) that could easily have been transferred to the beginning. So it appears that the watchword for these grammarians is “one rule for me, but another for thee.”
Such syntactical legalism undercuts the gracious nature of basic grammar. The rules of grammar were intended to keep things clear. When they begin to obscure that clarity, or otherwise become counterproductive, then it’s time to remember that man was not made for the Sabbath.
Even so, the sword cuts both ways. If. your. sentence. looks. like. this. it. should. probably. be. put. out. of. its. misery. That sort of nonsense doesn’t really make anything clearer, it just makes it look as though your keyboard has asthma. Grammatical rules, though not the inflexible laws of the Medes and Persians, must still maintain enough rigidity to withstand the all too common pressures of slapdash sentences and old-fashioned bone idleness. But every rule must be subject to the Golden Rule of writing: “In all things, clarity.”
On points of grammar I tend to be persnickety over the basics and a libertine around the edges. For instance, I think that table manners are essential for both dignity and civility, but if the pompous court of Louis XIV demands 22 salad forks, my sympathies lie with the antinomians.
So, while I am not a grammatical anarchist, I am far from a Grammar Nazi. I advocate for something along the lines of a grammatical constabulary. That is, have enough laws to keep the peace, but don’t make a federal case out of it if some free spirit opts for an em dash instead of a comma in order to affect a longer pause and a good use of white space on the page.
If the Chicago Manual of Style demands that you make bricks without straw, then bear the taskmaster’s whip with patience. If, however, they will not relent on the superfluous “s’s,” or the inclusion of gender neutral pronouns, then remember this guy. Peace be upon him, and may his tribe increase.
*P.S. The Oxford Comma, however, is non-negotiable. It may just mean the difference between heaven and hell.
Father, Son and Holy Spirit = Heresy
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit = Orthodoxy
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