Clarity and grace

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While filing some examples of summative constructions, I came across the discussion of summative modifiers in Joseph Williams's Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace (I have the 3rd ed., of 2008), which made me wonder whether we had said good things about Williams's books on style here on Language Log. The answer is yes, but just barely, so it's time for a note. And for a late notice that Williams (long-time professor of English at the University of Chicago) died in February.

(Williams's death went unremarked not only here on Language Log, but apparently in the New York Times as well.)

Previous mentions on Language Log: a passing reference by Geoff Pullum to "the excellent Style: Toward Clarity and Grace" and a terse recommendation of Williams by Aaron Brown in a comment on a posting of mine. That's not nearly enough.

There are three somewhat different Style books (listed here with the date of first publication), each out in several editions:

Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace (1981)
Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (1990)
Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace (2003)

The books treat some of the same topics as Strunk & White's Elements of Style, but they're hugely better. My advice is to junk your S&W and pick up Toward or Basics. They're a little bit longer than S&W, but still concise enough to be manageable. (Virginia Tufte's Artful Sentences: Syntax As Style, which I wrote approvingly about a while back, is considerably longer and more detailed.)

The back-cover copy for Basics gives a good feel for the book's approach:

This book presents a problem-solution structure to show you what most guides only tell you. The principles are offered not as hard-and-fast rules, but as commonsense approaches to help you diagnose your own prose quickly and revise it effectively. Williams' book engages you in a conversation on writing and teaches you techniques that can help you write clearly–with grace and style.

The second section of the book, on Correctness, is full of sensible advice, similar in tone to discussions in MWDEU, including a repudiation of some of the "rules" that vex writers on usage. In a box on p. 23 Williams summarizes a crucial point about the rest:

Here's the point: You can't predict correct usage by logic or general rule. You have to learn the rules one-by-one and accept the fact that most of them are arbitrary and idiosyncratic.

But most of the book isn't about correct usage. The chapters that follow Correctness treat Actions, Characters (participants), Cohesion and Coherence, Emphasis, Concision, Shape, Elegance, and the Ethics of Style. Throughout, there are sections on "diagnosis and revision".

(Getting back to summative elements: I think that I got the term summative from Williams's writing. I'm not claiming that Williams was the first to use the word as a grammatical term, only that I think I got it from him.)


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