Honoring the elements

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Even jezebel.com is getting into the S&W 50th anniversary act (Sadie, "Stylistas", 4/16/2009):

The Elements of Style, Strunk and White's timeless usage and composition handbook, is 50 today. Please place a preposition after the relative pronoun in its honor.

I applaud this attempt to re-purpose words that have otherwise lost their meaning in popular culture, but frankly, the results are a stylistic disappointment.

"A preposition after the relative pronoun" is so 2006, so boringly Wall Street. These post-bubble times demand something fun, even something a little bit silly. You could honor the Elements by draping a pluperfect subjunctive seductively on a simple background of  passive voices. Or you could surround a definite description with a sassy spray of present participles.

There are thousands of possibilities, and I hope that the innovative thinkers at jezebel.com will do better next time.

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11 Comments »

  1. Geoff Pullum said,

    April 18, 2009 @ 9:28 am

    Melvyn may think it's funny, but me, I'm scared. One of the commenters at Jezebel.com said: "I was just on the phone with my friend complaining about my boyfriend's CONSTANT use of prepositions at the ends of his sentences." That would be in conversation, I presume. Her boyfriend strands prepositions like every competent speaker of English since the Norman conquest, and she gets on the phone to complain to a friend about it. Another commenter said "I'd try to write something witty but I'm far too afraid of making grammatical errors and having some sort of book ghost come haunt me." America's children are being made to feel uneasy even about their own informal speech in their own native language. And Strunk and White is part of the reason. It's known to be the procedural handbook of the grammar police. That doesn't mean people read it closely (the book does not say all preposition-stranding is ungrammatical, though it does vaguely try to perpetuate the anti-stranding prejudice); but they browse it and get the idea that they should be uneasy and insecure about their command of English. I find this deeply creepy, and what has happened to knowledge of grammar in America's educational culture profoundly worrying.

  2. John Lawler said,

    April 18, 2009 @ 11:14 am

    Here, then, in honor of The Elements:
    The Elements

  3. Wordnut said,

    April 18, 2009 @ 11:50 am

    @ Pullum, You would think these commenters would take comfort in the writing style of popular magazines and in advertising where casual, informal, conversational writing is the norm. Formal, academic English has its place. And so does the sentence that start with "and" or "but." And the sentence that's comfortable with the preposition it hangs out with. And the sentence that's "incomplete." As dominate as conversational English is in our popular culture, it's hard to imagine how anyone can be so uneasy with their own speech or that such a "creepy" phenomenon even exists.

  4. Simon Spero said,

    April 18, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

    Preposition (noun)

    Something to annoy prescriptivists with.
    [http://www.cafepress.com/ranganathong.354208364]

  5. Jeremy said,

    April 18, 2009 @ 11:20 pm

    "And the sentence that's "incomplete.""

    And incomplete sentences.

    It's tragic to see a nicely constructed joke trip 2 yards from the finish.

  6. Jeremy said,

    April 18, 2009 @ 11:21 pm

    On a 2nd reading, maybe I'm just tragic.

  7. Ray Girvan said,

    April 18, 2009 @ 11:38 pm

    I like to think that the time has come for a major assault on prescriptivism, because it's within anyone's capacity to do a rough-and-ready corpus search via Google Books.

  8. Amelia said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 8:10 pm

    I looked through the comments at Jezebel, and many of the commenters did question the value of S&W (several even referenced Language Log). Even the person who was afraid that a book ghost would haunt her was joking. Generally, the commenters at Jezebel play with language freely and are not afraid of any grammatical rules set forth in grammar guides (for example, they are pretty skilled at lolspeak and use many variations of the word snarky).

  9. Dena said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 8:29 pm

    I have often referenced The Elements of Style, to refresh my memory of grammar rules. It is a helpful guide of prescriptive grammar rules, but if you listen to every single grammar rule without exception you are bound to run into some problems. As for the rule of not having a preposition at the end of a sentence I think it is important to decide that based on each individual sentence. Sometime avoiding ending in a preposition leads to a wordy and convoluted sentence.

  10. marie-lucie said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 10:17 pm

    Wikipedia has this to say under E.B. White:

    White's rework of [Strunk's] book was extremely well received, and further editions of the work followed in 1972, 1979, and 1999; an illustrated edition followed in 2005. That same year, a New York composer named Nico Muhly premiered a short opera based on the book. The volume is a standard tool for students and writers and remains required reading in many composition classes.

    Someone should add an update, and also another section "critical reviews" to balance the tone of the earlier paragraph.

    (Imagine an opera based on this book! But the composer (who has a degree in English) is credited with two albums with language-related titles, Speaks Volumes and Mothertongue).

  11. Lindsay Blackwell said,

    April 28, 2009 @ 12:01 pm

    In response to Geoff's comment:

    "America's children are being made to feel uneasy even about their own informal speech in their own native language."

    Oh, without a doubt. And it is quite scary. However, I don't think Strunk and White, or any other grammar guides, are quite the ones to blame. I personally had never picked up any sort of grammar book until my freshman year of college when I was required to purchase Elements as part of my school's Honors program.

    But I've been very self-concious of my own speech long before that, and I think the culprits are in fact the English teachers who attacked me and my fellow elementary school companions throughout my grade school experience. As a third grader, I didn't have anything outside of a basic grasp on grammar "rules"; I'm sure I knew what a noun and a verb were, but other than that, I couldn't really have cared less.

    However, I have distinct memories of being verbally corrected many, many times by my third and fourth grade English teachers, before I really understood what I was being corrected on (check out that ending preposition–these same teachers would be appalled, especially since I now know the rules and am in control of my written grammar). So no, I didn’t develop my insecurities about my vernacular from any sort of prescriptivist grammar textbook, laboriously listing rules of shoulds-and-shouldn’ts—I picked it up from teachers, haphazardly correcting young students who have next to no clue what they’ve even done wrong in the first place.

    While I am an advocate of giving students a better grasp of grammar in their middle school and high school educations to better prepare them for college and/or the real world, elementary school English teachers—or at least the ones I had—need a better approach for teaching grammar, rather than just correcting students repeatedly and expecting them to catch the drift. Besides, this just leads to students hypercorrecting themselves anyway—“between you and I,” for instance.

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