Why We Write

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Jacqueline (we won't include the roughly 8,000,000 last names she seems to have) is looking for Grammar Nazis, Mechanics Checas, and the Usage Frumentarii to help polish her writing.

Her open invitation has evoked some interesting comments from many of her rather sharp readers on the nature of "perfect" grammar, usage, and mechanics, and while we've touched a bit on it ourselves both here and on her blog, we'd like to go a bit further.

First off, we agree with commenter Timothy, who writes, "a lot of issues come down to style preference." The serial comma is a good example of this: AP style omits it, no rational style does not. Another example he cites and which we've written about too is the placement of quotation marks. Our own boss has a special hatred in his heart for the word "towards," and we, of course, wage ongoing war against The Dreaded Apluralstrophe!

But we can't neglect the rules, and our reason for creating this blog was largely to reconcile the two worlds of stylistic perfection, which we are paid to enforce, and the ever-transformative nature of language, which we are forced to accept. And while we, like commenter Philip Welch, have also "internalized the usage rules [we] want," we also acknowledge that most of the people we're writing/editing for have not, and, unfortunately, it's the audience for whom we're getting paid to write/edit. This is why we vigorously maintain that the best form of writing is whatever gets our point across.

And since we believe that, we also believe that 100% perfection in all things grammatical, mechanical, and usage-cal--even if it can be attained--is not the same as clear writing. Now, it's okay to know all the rules, even those that contradict the others, we're just saying (well, writing) that's it's not a good idea to practice them all.

Finally, we'd like to address Strunk & White. We've read it, and it's good, but we haven't found anything in it that wasn't also in your standard style guide. Professionally, we got more from Orwell's Politics and the English Language. Maybe that's just us; we learn better from lengthy examples. Plus we think Orwell's much wittier. Why so many people rave about Strunk & White, we're not sure--probably because it's very fun to say, "Strunk and White," which would explain why everyone refers to Strunk & White as "Strunk and White," when the actual title is The Elements of Style.