Strunk and White’s Macho Grammar Club

Mark Dery in The Daily Beast:

ScreenHunter_1301 Aug. 09 22.07“Be clear.” “Omit needless words.” “Do not overwrite.” “Avoid fancy words.” “Use the active voice.” Who can argue with such common sense commandments, especially when they’re delivered with Voice-of-God authority? Certainly not the generations of students, secretaries, working writers, and wannabe Hemingways who’ve feared and revered Strunk and White’s Elements of Style as the Bible of “plain English style,” as E.B. White calls it in his introduction. (Since 1959, when White revised and substantially expanded the brief guide to prose style self-published in 1918 by William Strunk Jr., a professor of English literature at Cornell, Strunk & White, as most of us know it, has sold more than 10 million copies.)

Can it really be coincidence that, smack on the first page, in a note about exceptions to one of his Elementary Rules Of Usage (“Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s…, whatever the final consonant”), Strunk gives as an example, “Moses’ laws”? The Elements of Style, more than another book, has set in stone American ideas about proper usage and, more profoundly, good style. Professor Strunk wrote his little tract as a stout defense of “the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated,” the red-flag word in that sentence being “violated.”

Usage absolutists are the Scalia-esque Originalists of the language-maven set. Their emphasis on “timeless” grammatical truths, in opposition to most linguists’ view of language as a living, changing thing, is at heart conservative; their fulminations about the grammatical violations perpetrated by the masses mask deeper anxieties about moral relativism and social turbulence.

More here.