Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Style Wars - Part 1

Over the past week or so, it's been interesting to see the spectacular fallout from Geoffrey K Pullum's beautifully acerbic hatchet-job - 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice (Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 17, 2009) - on Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, the USA's iconic writing style guide. Pullum is one of the regulars at Language Log, a professor of linguistics and co-author of the 2002 Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, and his view is nothing new; he's previously called it "a stupid little book" and "a horrid little compendium of unmotivated prejudices". However, the recent article probably had more of a punch because it argued his case at length, and was timed for the 50th anniversary of Strunk & White's publication.

More on this later; but one aspect immediately obvious from the criticisms is that anyone commenting on grammar and style is wading into a factional war of which one line drawn is transatlantic.  One Fark.com poster objected to "a Scot writing invectives about an American style guide"  (Pullum replied, "I've been an American citizen longer than you've been alive").  I thought for an entree I'd dust off an account I wrote about a dispute with similar roots, surrounding Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves - a book no longer current but which was extremely popular in 2003 as an exposition of a "zero tolerance" attitude toward incorrect punctuation.

Though it has been a popular success on both sides of the Atlantic, one critic in particular hated it. Louis Menand of New Yorker. His review, Bad Comma, is largely a rant about the punctuation errors he found. He is annoyed by what he perceives as "British laxness", having already said in his review of the Chicago Manual of Style that the British "happen to be complete slobs about citation".

Many of his comments, however, revealed strange views on correct punctuation. As John Mullan asks in this riposte in the Guardian, The war of the commas, since when has it been wrong to use parentheses to add an independent clause to the end of a sentence? Why does Menand think it an error that "Sometimes, phrases such as 'of course' are set off by commas; sometimes, they are not"?

Andrew Franklin, Truss's editor, diagnosed "a twisted colon" as Menand's problem, and judging by the Chicago Manual of Style piece, Menand seems to me to have astonishingly anal-retentive views on written English: "Some people will complain that the new Chicago Manual is too long. These people do not understand the nature of style. There is, if not a right way, a best way to do every single thing, down to the proverbial dotting of the ‘i’ ... The perfect manual of style would be like the perfect map of the world: exactly coterminous with its subject, containing a rule for every word of every sentence".

But not everyone believes that such a One True Way exists. Edmund Morris, reviewing in the New York Times - Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Punctuation and It's Discontents - comments on the wide variability of punctuation style among famous writers. “The semicolon”, for instance, “has caused more fistfights between authors and editors than any other cipher”. Menand’s view that Truss uses too many semicolons, then, is a subjective preference, not a statement of grammatical fact, and I think that this is the overall problem with his review: he treats his own 'house style' as if it were a generally agreed standard for correctness. It ain’t, not even in the USA. My surprise is that subsequent commentators have been so ready to believe that it is, despite the evidence that grammar is subject to factions that promote their own styles.

Media pundits such as William Safire and Menand himself are one example, and in the view of the UCSC linguistics professor Geoffrey Pullum they have little authority behind their assertions. In an iconoclastic talk he gave some years back - see here - Pullum argued that "Almost everything most educated Americans believe about English grammar is wrong", and he includes Menand on the "long dishonor roll of myth-creators and fear-mongers". He has written elsewhere about Menand's non-rules: see Menand's acumen deserts him ("It is patently ridiculous [for Menand] to suggest that that sentences like Roy Horn's white tiger attacked him on stage are ungrammatical. Such sentences are commonplace in the work of the finest writers"). Last year, another top linguist, Arnold Zwicky, reported an e-mail correspondence - see Grammaticality, anaphora, and all that - where Menand got into a tangle trying to justify his own use of a construct that he had elsewhere described as a solecism.

Major publishing houses are another faction. In the UK, for instance, Oxford University Press goes against general usage by favouring “-ize” word endings (on etymological grounds) and the ‘Oxford comma’, aka the Harvard or serial comma. Academic language factions exist in the USA too. Morris adds that he wishes “that Truss had devoted a few pages to taking on the usage czars of American academe -- particularly those at the Modern Language Association and University of Chicago Press, whose anti-capital, anti-hyphen, anti-italic stylebooks seek to return modern logography to the uniformity of ancient papyri”. He cites the example of the 1992 Modern Library edition of Middlemarch where Eliot’s "[Dorothea Brooke] was troublesome -- to herself, chiefly" was edited to “…troublesome to herself chiefly”, blunting in the process the wonderfully bitchy emphasis and timing.

This could be where Menand is coming from, as he sees no role in punctuation for timing. To him, it's just as structural markup “to add precision and complexity to meaning” and “increase the information potential of strings of words”. He says: “As [Truss] points out, in earlier times punctuation did a lot more work than it does today, and some of the work involved adjusting the timing in sentences. But this is no longer the norm, and trying to punctuate in that spirit now only makes for ambiguity and annoyance”. It would be interesting to hear eminent writers' views on that.

- originally in The Apothecary's Drawer weblog, July 04, 2004

More to follow.
- Ray


  1. Wonderful post. I wonder what they would say about punctuation in text messaging? As you know, it is an extra two key strokes to add a comma. And what about the MicroSoft grammer checker. Who is the referee there?

    (Of course a twisted colon is a volvulus; but you knew that.)

  2. Thx: more coming. I do text (I've had to learn, as my new-found semi-siblings - saga if you wish - are into it) but it's heavy weather.

    Indeed: poor old bloodhound as discussed.

  3. My comma-typing finger seems to think that commas should be sprinkled liberally, sort of like fertilizer. After I write something (anything), I have to go back and scrape off all the comma-litter. Add to that all the conflicting advice about how they are or are not supposed to be used, and I really feel like ripping the comma key right off my keyboard.

    I am strongly in favor of people using them as they wish as long as it supports clarity or at least doesn't add confusion.

    [I must say, it's quite unusual to find links to descriptions of lubricated . . . tubes in a discussion of punctuation.]