Awful book, so I bought it

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A long time ago (it was 2010, but so much has happened since then) I noted here that Greg Mankiw recommended to his Harvard economics students not just the little book I hate so much (The Elements of Style), but also William Zinsser's book On Writing Well. About the latter, I said this:

I actually don't know much about Zinsser's book; I'm trying to obtain a copy, but it is apparently not published in the UK. What I do know is that he makes the outrageous claim that most adjectives are unnecessary. So I have my doubts about Zinsser too.

Well, last Thursday, as I browsed the University of Pennsylvania bookstore (I'm on the eastern seaboard in order to give a lecture at Princeton on Monday), I spotted that a copy of the 30th anniversary edition of Zinsser was on sale at the bargain price of $8.98. Should I buy it? I flipped it open by chance at page 67: "Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb…" Uh-oh! More passivophobia. I've definitely got a professional interest in hatred of passives.

I turned the page and saw "ADVERBS. Most adverbs are unnecessary" and "ADJECTIVES. Most adjectives are also unnecessary." Of course! I remember now that I tried to skewer this nonsense in "Those who take the adjectives from the table", commenting on a quotation from Zinsser in a book by Ben Yagoda. Zinsser only uses five words to say "Most adjectives are also unnecessary," but one of them (unnecessary) is an adjective, and another (also) is an adverb.

One of the remarks Zinsser makes about adverbs is this:

Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.

Let's take another look at that with part-of-speech labels added, shall we?

Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.

That's 13 words, of which 5 (highlighted in red) are adjectives or adverbs, for a staggeringly high overall percentage not far off 40 percent! It's the old story of do as I say, not as I do. You and I are told that we won't be good writers unless our adjective and adverb count is close to zero, but Zinsser is a professional so he doesn't have to worry: he can use them at will, sometimes two out of every five words, without incurring criticism.

But I bought his book. The sad fact is that I need to own copies of bad works on grammar, style, and writing so that I can speak authoritatively about what they contain, and look things up in them for purposes of illustration. I guess I hate to see my $8.98 go to HarperCollins for a book containing mendacious drivel about passives and modifiers, but it's like when Which magazine buys a packet of low-quality packet soup to analyse and compare with other brands, or Federal authorities purchase a handgun at a suspect store to gain evidence that background checks are being skimped.

I'm not a consumer of books like Zinsser's, I'm policing them. It's a dirty job; but someone's gotta do it.

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