The Littlest Meap

WTF prescriptionism

Posted by: meaplet on: May 7, 2008

A conversation I had yesterday set me thinking about the sorts of “grammar rules” one learns in high school. Unlike most of my peers, I did not read Strunk and White until some point in college, when my little sister gave me a copy as a gift. Instead, my primary guide was Lucile Vaughn Payne’s The Lively Art of Writing. (Yes, only one ‘l’ in the second syllable of “Lucile”.) This was a bizarre relic of my high school–all of the female English teachers of a certain age were obsessed with it and pushed it on us. By the time my sister was hitting the point of really learning to write (which, from my recollection, doesn’t happen in Willits until AP English) younger, more freshly educated teaches were prevailing, and so she learned to worship at the feet of Strunk and White.

This morning I pulled out my copy of The LIvely Art of Writing and started flipping through it on the bus, on the way to the chiropractor. I haven’t done much more than flip through it since high school; even so, it was surprising to see how much of my precepts on writing styles come from Payne (especially since I didn’t read the book until I was 17!). I remembered that she’s the one who finally taught me to transition gracefully from paragraph to paragraph using “hook sentences” and I remembered the unspeakable horrors of “due to” (on which topic I will elaborate later), but I didn’t remember in how much detail she talks about developing one’s own voice, or her incredibly helpful explanation of how to create a writing style that sounds as natural as the spoken word while not being colloquial. And it turns out my tendency of elaborate tabboo avoidance on the topic of touchy points like split infinitives, singular “they” and the like comes from her–she frequently says that a good writer can pull themselves out of traps by reformulating sentences entirely to get away from those constructions while not forcing an awkward alternative. This is something I used to debate about with Marjorie back when we were firsties–she always maintained that if something required complete rewriting to avoid, and wasn’t actually an error, I should just get over it, a view which I eventually came around to. (Did you see the preposition that ended that sentence? So there!)

I would recommend this book without hesitation to anyone learning hoping to take the leap between essay writing as it’s done in high school and essay writing as it’s done in college. But, as I’ve implied above, there are a few… quirks in the book that one should be aware of.

First, and most obviously, the examples are incredibly dated. This seems especially weird for someone who repeatedly points out that excessive colloqualism and talking down to an audience is a bad thing (“Some students use [slang] in the mistaken notion that it will make their writing sound informal. It won’t. It will merely make it sound juvenile. Or “cute.” Nothing is more repulsive in writing than cuteness.” [150]). Still, the book is filled with example sentences about sock hops and drag racing. Inexplicable. And, tragically, “cute.”

Second is her chapter “Odds and Ends and Means,” which is her big list o’ prescriptions. This is without a doubt the weirdest section of the book, because these prescriptions are… unusual. Things I’ve never seen anywhere else. She divides her rules up into the “Terrible Three” and the “Troublesome Twenty-seven” and I’ve provided some of the more unusual ones below, with commentary. Beware, Payne suffers a little bit of what the Language Log folks call “word rage.”

The Terrible Three:

1. The -wise suffix: Some day the barbarian who started the fashion of adding -wise to the ends of words will be identified, run to earth, and suitably punished—preferably by being forced to spend the rest of his life reading the compositions written by students who have followed in his footsteps. That would probably be best, justice-wise… Fortunately, the constant use of -wise is rapidly becoming a national joke, generally recognized as an expression reserved for the hopelessly square. In a few years it may be laughed out of existence. But it’s a good idea to avoid it like poison, meantime-wise. (146)

So, apparently it was laughed out of existance, because I think I first encountered the -wise suffix in the context of this admonition. I wonder if there really was an epicdemic of -wise in the 1960s, or if this was a case of the frequency illusion? Either way, it seems like a bizzare choice as the number one thing to avoid in terrible writing.

2. The type and type of habit: Throw these out along with -wise. It is particularly barbarous to use type as an adjective: I have the type father who loses his temper. Even with an “of” added (I have the type of father who . . . ) the expression is an assault on the ear of a discriminating reader.

3. Manner and nature phrases: Manner and nature are the pet words of the pompous, the long-winded, and the empty-headed. They are nearly always redundant. In a polite manner means “politely.” Comprehensive in nature (or of a comprehensive nature) means “comprehensively.”(147)

I don’t find either of these the least bit objectional, but again these seem somewhat unusual for inclusion in the top three of all Things One Should Not Do In Writing. Further, the main objection to both of these seems to be redundancy, which is also the case for #16 (“Always off, never off of“). Also #18 (“redundancies“), which covers strictly words that repeat the same meaning, as in “false illusion.” And #20 (“similar to: If you mean like, say like. Why beat around the bush?”) Strunk and White, I think, had it a bit better when they said to omit needless words. Payne here spends a lot of time telling us fervently which words are needless and should be omitted.

Now, on to select higlights of the Troublesome Twenty-Seven. A lot more of these are common complaints, or things that otherwise sound ungrammatical to my ear. Some, though, are quirky:

5. due to: A graceless phrase, even when used correctly, and it is almost never used correctly. Avoid it altogether. (148)

To this day I am too frightened to use “due to.” I’ve looked it up in a few different grammars, and I’m still not confident that I understand well enough what the “correct” way even is to use it without fear. (If I remember correctly, “due to” can only be used with a single noun and not with a clause. “The game was canceled due to rain” is ok, “I was late due to losing my homework” is not ok.) Sometimes I use it, assume I’ve done so incorrectly and wander around sheepishly as a result, even though no one else (including, in college, professors grading papers) knew that there was even a question about its usage.

11: indefinite pronouns (each, everyone, everybody, either, neither, nobody): All these pronouns are singular and must be treated consistantly as singular. You wouldn’t write “Everybody are taking their own lunch,” so you shouldn’t write “Everybody is taking their own lunch.” Their is plural. The sentence should be “Everybody is taking his own lunch.” (148)

It irks me here that she calls this section “indefinite pronouns” and not “singular they,” as the entire section is a rant against singular they. I’m not going to defend singular they here as others have already done it, and better, but that obfuscation irritates me. Acknowledge what you’re rejecting; don’t take it as a given that “they” is always and forever plural and then claim that people are incorrectly coordinating their sentences. I had professors who did this too. Don’t act like I don’t know the difference between singular and plural; tell me you don’t want to see singular they. It’s as simple as that, folks.

All quotations, for the record, are from Payne, Lucile Vaughn [Vaughn Payne, Lucile?]. The Lively Art of Writing. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1965. Go check out a copy from your local library, or buy it on the internets (I’d recommend a real live book store, but the odds that they have this book are vanishingly low.)

4 Responses to "WTF prescriptionism"

Oh Molly, I never knew you were such a grammar geek! *hearts*

Do you know, I’ve still never read Strunk & White. A coworker gave me the illustrated edition for Christmas this past year but I’ve yet to do more than flip through and look at the pictures.

It seems to me a shame that language, because it is a system with identifiable rules, gets so confused about what is a rule and what is a stylistic or artistic guideline. Does this happen in the other art forms? Music has some impossibly arcane systems, but if you break the rules of those systems, you’re just presumed to be doing something new, though it may sound bad to listeners used to something else. Right? Then again, they rioted at The Rite of Spring and Strindberg retreated from the concert world to form his own little society of listeners, so I may be overestimating the openmindedness of classical music listeners.

Anyway. The “due to” rule remains the most baffling to me. I suspect it was a rule that had its time. Mrs. E once queried my use of “due to” in a thesis chapter, but I told her I’d checked two different stylistic authorities and that it was fine. She accepted that explanation…and I had checked two stylistic authorities, I’d just done it pursuant to a conversation with you, rather than while I was writing the chapter…

Well, there is always the Tritone…

I have so little understanding of “due to.” If I can resolve every one of my “due to” qualms by just replacing the expression with “because of” I don’t see why there’s a limit on it.

I actually looked up “due to” in the Cambridge Grammar of the English language some point mid-post, and they just refer to “due” as being one of a very small list of adverbs that can take the preposition “to.” There was probably more detail later on in the book, but I was satisfied by that.

Last night in chorus, Stephanie (our director) used the -wise suffix and I was incredibly entertained. A couple minutes later she went on a grammatical rant (“My grandmother used to say ‘I feel badly’ and I’d say, ‘What, are you having trouble with your fingertips.'” and I was doubly amused.

I’ve actually been thinking about singular they a lot since I wrote this post. In hindsight, I’m really resentful of all the people who graded my papers (namely, a certain high school english teacher) who told me I was making singular/plural mistakes when I used singular they in a paper.

Yeah, the music analogy kind of breaks down…

I piously avoided singular they for a long time. In fact I once told a French teacher that it was wrong, and he cocked his eyebrow and said “but everybody says it.” In retrospect this strikes me as really funny, coming from a Frenchman who was supposedly subject to the decisions of the Academie Francaise…

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