I've simply had it with all the people who keep telling me that they revere The Elements of Style because it's such a nice little book and helped them so much with their writing when they were in college that they carry it everywhere they go and give it to all their students or hand a copy to each new employee that they hire for their company yadda yadda yadda… I have decided that my campaign against Strunk and White's toxic little compendium of unfollowable dumb advice, bungled grammar claims, and outright mendacity must be taken directly to America's colleges, starting with the great universities of the East Coast. For the opening event I have chosen Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. I will speak on the Brown campus at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday night next week, April 13, in the Metcalf Chemistry Building Auditorium at 190-194 Thayer Street. Admission is free, and Language Log readers get a 30% discount off that. Be there.
The lecture is designed to be accessible and enjoyable for almost anyone with an interest in the English language — except perhaps for people who want to tell me that they revere The Elements of Style because it's such a nice little book and helped them so much with their writing when they were in college that they carry it everywhere they go and give it to all their students or hand a copy to each new employee that they hire for their company yadda yadda yadda.
I hoped originally to stoke up the crowd to a huge outburst of anger against The Elements of Style and end the evening with a cathartic mass burning of copies of the book, everyone setting fire to copies they had brought with them and holding them aloft like a candles, waving them so that embers of flaming nonsense like "Write with nouns and verbs" scatter through the air like precious twinkling sparks of wisdom and truth… But I am told that the fire marshals for the Metcalf Chemistry Building have ruled that out in no uncertain terms. They are not happy about the courtyard bonfire idea, either.
Another idea I had was that everyone would strip naked in a symbolic throwing off of prescriptivist strictures, a return to the naked innocence of using the language as it is rather than as a pair of misinformed old authoritarians once wanted it to be… But it turns out that they already do that at Brown in the various undergraduate libraries, during the celebrated naked donut run every semester, so this would be absolutely nothing new.
The event now planned, therefore, is likely to be quite safe despite the huge crowds expected, and fit for family TV news viewing. (The networks are a little disappointed; their location crews had been making plans for coverage of either a major blaze or a lot of titillating pixelized shots of public nudity.)
Brown University, the 7th to be founded in America, was the first to accept students regardless of their religious faith. That element of tolerance is important when you are going to speak out against a book that many people seem to regard as a sacred text. Brown is also the university where it was first proposed that computer-searchable corpora of text would one day be important for linguistic investigation — for finding out what the language is actually like so you don't have to go by the unfiltered prejudices that dopey old coots stuff into their cockamamie usage books.
The Longman group now own the rights to the current (4th) edition of The Elements of Style. I hope the rumors I have heard about them capitalizing on my campaign by setting up a book display in the lobby of the Metcalf Building are untrue. You wouldn't believe how tiring it is kicking over tables of books. I want to reserve my energy for giving the lecture. See you there.