No wonder there’s so much confusion about style guides – there are so many of them! In the past decade alone, we’ve seen the publication of Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, 3rd Edition; That or Which, and Why: A Usage Guide for Thoughtful Writers and Editors; The Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed; Comma Sutra: Position Yourself for Success with Good Grammar; Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation; Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose; and The Elements of F*cking Style: A Helpful Parody, just to name a few.
Of course, those aren’t really “style” guides, at least, not in the same way that a Chicago Manual of Style or a Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association is a style guide. They’re more like usage manuals. The difference is subtle and vital.
A style guide is prescriptive. It lays down the law, and those writing under its mandates must obey. Usage manuals are descriptive. They explain how language is being used, and they offer guidelines for best practices. As you can see from their titles, they tend to be witty, capricious, whimsical, rude, lurid – full of personality. They’re meant to be enjoyed over a cup of coffee, perused in the bookstore, displayed on the coffee table, or read in the john. They should not be taken as gospel.
Still, three such have attained such lofty heights among writers and editors at one time or another that I’d like to linger on them for just a moment if we may.
Like all of the aforementioned, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style describes how language was being used by some of the best writers in the middle of the twentieth century. That it did so with grace and wit is one good reason for its longevity. Other reasons, less fortunate, are delineated by Geoffrey Pullum in “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice” and serve as a warning to anyone tempted to treat a usage manual – even one with the word “style” in its title – as anything other than a repository of helpful advice.
Sadly, Fowler’s Modern English Usage has not Strunk and White’s ubiquity. And truly, entries that condemn the slang use of “personal equation” are outdated and nonsensical. But are we (lovers of language) not missing something by learning that hypercorisma refers to the “[u]se of pet names, nursery words, or diminutives, or the like, either simply, as Molly for Mary, comfy for comfortable, hanky for handkerchief, etc., or by way of euphemism, as fib for lie, undies for underclothes?” I know it helped me to be reminded that fib is derived from fabrication, and to learn the word for that mutation.
And don’t we all need to be reminded of the following sage bit of advice?
[p]rinting a passage in italics, like underlining one in a letter, is a primitive way of soliciting attention. The practiced writer is aware that his business is to secure prominence for what he regards as the essence of his communication by so marshalling his sentences that they shall lead up to a climax, or group themselves round a centre, or be worded with different degrees of impressiveness as the need of emphasis varies; he knows too that it is an insult to the reader’s intelligence to admonish him periodically by a change of type that he must now be on the alert. (Fowler, H. W. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. 2nd ed. Rev. Sir Ernest Gowers. NY:Oxford UP, 1983. Print.)
For anyone who is now tempted to seek Fowler in electronic form, let me say that while a hard copy of the handbook may be cumbersome, it holds a certain advantage. Referencing and cross-referencing allow an education that a hyperlinked generation will never know. The act of holding a word in thought while thumbing through the pages to find it, seeing its vowels align with those before you and so fixing its spelling in your mind’s eye, tasting its unfamiliar diphthongs and hearing a variety of emphases, guessing which pronunciation might elicit laughter from a pundit all spark a rich variety of cognitive processes and thus a joy in ownership denied by a click of the mouse.
Of all the three usage manuals I see referenced most often, Joseph Williams’ Style: Toward Clarity and Grace is the most prescriptive, not that it is any more dictatorial than the other two – quite the opposite. In tone, Williams is far more amenable and, dare I say, humble – in the sense that he advises instead of proclaiming with an eye to context and mindful of the omnipresent exception. The prescriptivism in his case arises from his arrangement, which is to set forth ten lessons; identify certain principles with examples and explanations; summarize their significance; and then, if possible, offer exercises so the reader can practice. He includes an appendix on punctuation, a glossary for grammar, and suggested answers to selected exercises.
Unlike Fowler, Williams is eminently readable, almost deceptively so. I have known many an English teacher who, having personally found Style to be revelatory, tries to bring Williams into the classroom, only to discover how very daunting the text can be. My own approach has been greatly influenced by Williams, but it took several years and a few failed lesson plans to learn how to incorporate his principles without embroiling students too deeply into the methodology.
More so than Strunk and White, Williams reminds the reader at every turn of the complex and delicate relationship between writer and reader. He cautions us to keep the reader at the fore, to write as we would wish to be written to, and to consider clarity as an ethical discipline.
Finally, by deciding to use the personal pronouns “us” and “we” in declarative sentences, rather than “you” in the imperative (Strunk and White) or the impersonal passive (Fowler), Williams opens the door to a whole host of professions. He beckons writers from all disciplines to come in and join the club. No matter in what field you were trained, here in Style, “we” are readers and writers working together at our craft to arrive at a shared understanding of this strange, complicated, beautiful world. For this alone, Williams’ Style is a book to which I like to return.