Nervous cluelessness

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Poor Sam Roberts. He begins his New York Times article "'The Elements of Style' turns 50" (April 21) thus:

How does a professional writer discuss "The Elements of Style" without nervously looking over his shoulder and seeing Will Strunk and E. B. White (or thousands of readers of their book) second-guessing him? (Is "second-guessing" hyphenated or not? Is posing a question the same as using the passive voice?)

Is posing a question the same as using the passive voice? Great Caesar's ghost, it is just as bad as I thought out there, or worse.

Here is a professional writer, working for what is perhaps the world's most influential quality newspaper, worrying aloud about whether asking a rhetorical question is "the same" as the passive construction (because if it were, of course, the implication would be that it was bad in some inexplainable yet allegedly important way). Yes, Roberts may be only half serious; but it is the fact that the thought came to him that I'm concerned about.

He is nervous about grammar while clearly clueless about it. I have seen this so often before. Nervous cluelessness. That is what Strunk and White have done to those of America's writers (overwhelmingly inexperienced college students, of course) who follow them. The users of this book are less sure of themselves, yet no better informed, and their ability to write is probably being harmed rather than enhanced.

You people (you know who you are) who write to me cavilling about my being too critical of Strunk and White's little book, too harsh in my judgment of it: you're wrong, you know. This is really a bad situation. Harm is being done to America's students and even professional writers every day this semicentenarian (actually nonagenarian) booklet of amateur grammar grumbling is out there in the bookshops and on people's desks. This isn't me being grouchy, Language Log readers; I'm really a very nice and happy guy. But people's lives are being made worse out there by confusing and confused instructions about writing that give them vague unease instead of a sense of mastery, and I am concerned about that.

I am right, and the defenders of The Little Book are wrong. And I have not bothered to turn comments on for this post. You know why? Because I've decided that I just don't want to spend any of today being nibbled to death by ducks.

[Hat tip to Jason Merchant at the University of Chicago, who pointed me to the Roberts article and noticed the remark about the passive voice.]


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