A few weeks back, Jon Reiss suggested six books on writing in his weekly BB column, The Freelance Life. Some commenters were unimpressed by his choice to include The Elements of Style, better known as Strunk and White. One wrote:
Friends don’t let friends get mixed up by Strunk & White. It’s outdated, inconsistent, needlessly peevish, and often just plain wrong. It contributes to an educational culture wherein people mistake existentials for passives, wouldn’t recognize a subjunctive to save their life, and are inchoately afraid of split infinitives in the same way some people are afraid of spiders or clowns. Just Say No.
As an editor I have to disagree. Strongly. I don’t follow every prescriptive in Strunk and White (neither does the AP Stylebook, nor The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage). I find the construction “Charles’s hat” to be visually awkward and I hate a serial comma. However. When I meet a new writer, she pitches me fantastic story ideas, and is funny, smart and articulate over coffee and then delivers a story riddled with semicolon meltdowns and the misuse of it’s-its and then-than, my heart sinks. I think less of her. And I know other editors will, too. Reading Strunk and White could have prevented that.
Writers who fancy themselves free-spirited artists outside the bounds of conventional punctuation and grammar often position themselves against Strunk and White, and grammar rules in general. At one time I stood proudly in that camp, waving a comma-less banner of linguistic freedom. “Faulkner didn’t use a semicolon,” I would bray at my high school English teacher. “Why do we have to learn this stuff, can’t we just write?” Never one to easily rile–this is a man who led 29 high school juniors and seniors in a declining manufacturing town with a median household income of $28,500 a year through As I Lay Dying, in a non-honors, non-leveled English class, and got the vast majority of us to understand it, and even like it–he simply replied, “Ms. Griffin, when you can write like Faulkner, you may dispense with the semicolon. I will let you know when you get there.” He was a huge fan of Strunk and White and I stole the copy I still have from his classroom.
I was thinking about all this as I was reading “The Writing Revolution,” an article by Peg Tyre in the most recent issue of The Atlantic. Tyre profiles New Dorp High School on Staten Island. After struggling to raise student test scores for years, with little success, Deirdre DeAngelis, New Dorp’s principal, came to the conclusion that bad writing was holding her students back. She and her staff discovered that their students had been taught to write during an educational moment in which elementary school English instruction was more about writing memoirs, stories and poetry than learning the parts of speech. As a result, students didn’t know how to use words like although, for, nor, however and despite. These conjunctions and prepositions are the workhorses in complex sentences; they convey relationships between ideas, thoughts, objects and actions. Once New Dorp students learned how to use the English language to express their thoughts and opinions, test scores went up, yes, but the students’ ideas also become more complex and nuanced.
All that freestyle writing that elementary school students have been doing is based on the theory that children will just figure out how to write well if they write a lot, just as neuro-normal children will learn to speak the language spoken around them without formal instruction. The writing corollary seems to not only be false, but by not learning how to properly and subtly use the English language, children are not learning how to think complex and subtle thoughts.
If fully understanding how to use a conjunction or a preposition can markedly improve the quality of thought, just think how much better writing, and the thinking that goes along with it, could be following composition principles from Strunk and White like, “Avoid a succession of loose sentences,” or “Express coordinate ideas in similar form.” As it turns out, proper use of a semicolon doesn’t simply make you seem smarter; fully understanding and employing proper grammar may actually make you smarter.