Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Escaping From the Garden of Meaning Over the Wall

Re. writing and how to advise others to improve their writing skills, good ol' Strunk & White is commonly dragged out as a source for useful information. Others think this is a bad idea. (Note: see comments from yesterday's post for better suggestions)

At one point, when faced with a graduate student whose writing skills were so extremely bad as to make it seem almost more likely that he was an extraterrestrial masquerading as a human than to believe that he had graduated from reputable schools with BS and MS degrees, the latter involving the writing of a thesis, I acquired the most recent edition of Strunk & White. My thought was that I would give this to him as an additional aid in my effort to get him to use verbs and punctuation and perhaps eventually paragraphs.

I had consulted S&W at various times in my youth, but as I flipped through S&W in my most recent encounter with it, I quickly realized that this book was not a good choice for a writing guide to give to my student.

Certainly there are useful parts, such as the section on words that are commonly misused. In addition, I know that I should consult the section on hyphenation more often, and I don't think anyone has ever been harmed by learning about subject-verb agreement from Strunk & White.

Even so, it is a deeply weird book.

It is hard to choose from among many candidates for my favorite passages, so I thought it might be fun to share a few, and see if readers want to share their own favorites. Here are some of mine (quoted out of context):

gut is a lustier noun than intestine

Some writers.. from sheer exuberance or a desire to show off, sprinkle their work liberally with foreign expressions, with no regard for the reader's comfort. It is a bad habit. Write in English.

Even the world of criticism has a modest pouch of private words (luminous, taut), whose only virtue is that they are exceptionally nimble and can escape from the garden of meaning over the wall.

.. writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by.

And never forget:

Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.


quasarpulse said...

It's quite terrible in its treatment of the passive voice. The authors were completely unable to distinguish passive constructions from...well, anything but the simplest SVO format. And the teachers who have used it as their style bible have (if possible) proven themselves even worse than Strunk and White in this respect.

Anonymous said...

Interesting posts on writing... had an interesting discussion with a professor who said that native speakers should accept scientific english as a foreign language, which can be difficult.
Do you think that there is a distinct difference between native English speakers and foreigners when it comes to 'teaching them to write', or do both have similar problems?
I'd be interested if there is a difference between learning to write proper science English from a native point of view, or from a foreign point of view.
I'm a bad writer, I'm too fuzzy and not very much to-the-point. Always need a few drafts (I have to supply extra red ink to the poor ones reading my 'scripts) before a manuscript looks like something readable...

John said...

I like, "The subject of a sentence and the principal verb should not, as a rule, be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning." How many other books on grammar are playful?

Anonymous said...

I've had Strunk and White recommended to me before, but never read it. It seems as though I might have to revisit that decision - some of those quotes are splendid. The last quote strikes a chord with me, though. I'm a journal editor by trade, and if we're talking about lack of clarity in poor writing, I submit that the other side of the coin is ornate writing hindering clarity. Every so often I see examples of this that have to be copy-edited down to simpler language. I admire a good command of the English language (and I admire a good command of its punctuation even more), but in many cases the people reading the articles have English as a second, third, or possibly even fourth language (kudos - I can't read papers in my second language, far less write them), and so for some readers overly complex sentence structure and obscure words will be as confusing as a sentence that syntax lacks. Always call a spade a spade is a good approach.
For either end of the scale, I'd recommend the ACS Style Guide for anyone looking for hints and tips to writing good scientific papers. It has some great guidance on structuring a paper and common usage and conventions in physical science, and a wealth of reference materials as well as some basic grammar and style points.
Great blog, thanks for sharing!

K said...

Shear? ;)

EliRabett said...

In the previous comments many confused reading with the ability to write. All me to confuse speaking with the ability to write. When I get something really bad, I ask the student to read it to me aloud.

I then tell them to read everything they write aloud and then correct it.

Dr. Rural said...

Since reading _The Elements of Style_ as an undergrad, I've never been able to read either "luminous" or "taut" without thinking of the words escaping over the garden wall.

My favorite . . . in order to show how good style is something of a mystery, he recasts "These are the times that try men's souls" in several awkward ways. This one makes me laugh: "Soulwise, these are trying times."

lost academic said...

It's definitely a book written at a time when there were some very particular ideas about how to write prose. For S&W, prose is not scientific writing, or opinion writing, or a variety of other useful kinds of writing in which the majority of us are engaged.

This is a good book for high school and it's a good book for young undergraduates who didn't have any sort of decent grounding in writing, but it can't be the only reference or guide. It is seems more likely that the hopeless student will find sitting down over a few months with a writing professional will be of more benefit - active critique and assistance are probably (here) best and fastest.

Dorian said...

I think I may need to acquire this book. I'm an arts student (theatre), and while my writing is reasonably adept, there's always room for improvement.

And if I'm purchasing a style book, it may as well be one with a sense of humour.

Jackie said...

In undergrad, I was an English major and writing minor, and my profs found S&W deplorable! We used Diana Hacker instead:

I highly recommend it!

Anonymous said...

For grammar humor, everyone needs to read "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" by Lynne Truss.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Please tell me that "shear exuberance" is a typo? If S & W actually wrote that, I'm going to have to burn my copy.

But I'm with you: S & W is for style, so it's no good when the problem is more basic than that.

ME said...

I've found the ACS Style Guide to be helpful on times. I think it is online now:

Scott Edward Jacobs said...

I vaguely remember that Stephen King's "on writing" had a bit of useful advice.

But I could be way off base here, as I read that book years and years ago...

Great blog, btw.

AcidFlask said...

Since you bring up Strunk and White, I feel obliged to point out grammarian Geoffrey Pullum's excellent polemic in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.

If you're at the point where you want to prescribe a grammar book, I think Huddleston and Pullum's "A Student's Introduction to English Grammar" by Cambridge University Press is a pretty good choice. Pullum is a grammarian who believes that one shouldn't prescribe how good English is written, but rather describe how the language is actually used.

On a not unrelated topic, Pullum is one of the bloggers behind the Language Log, which is often full of interesting discussions on the nuances of Language.

And no, I'm not a Pullum shill, I just think he does a great job of arguing against the conventional wisdom that good grammar can be shoved down people's throats with arcane rules.

Kevin said...

Diane Hacker's book is a simple grammar and punctuation reference---very useful for those who need to look something up, but inherently unreadable. There are a lot of other such references, but Hacker's is particularly popular with writing instructors, because the organization makes it easy to point students to a specific rule or section.

Strunk and White are much more readable, but do not attempt to be comprehensive. One can sit down with the the book and read it in a weekend.

Both are useful books but in different ways.

For someone who needs writing help (and not just grammar/punctuation) I like to recommend Huckin and Olsen's text.

Anonymous said...

Hehe, I cannot wait to see ComradePhysioProf's comments on this one!

Mark said...

Very interesting post. Thought perhaps you and your readers might be interested in my new book on the subject of S&W:

Ursula said...

I asked my native English speaking colleagues whether they studied Strunk&White. They said that they hadn't been bothered with learning grammar in school (one British, one American), whereas I, as a German, have been hammered with Grammar in German, English, Latin and Italian.

I just read the wikipedia article on Strunk&White, and now understand why I see so few passive phrases in English (something I really like to use in German).

When I wrote my first full paper (as a postdoc) in English, my adviser changed every single sentence. So, for my next paper, I decided to look through papers written by natives, and find sentences that were saying what I wanted to write. I used mostly stolen sentences, and again, she corrected nearly every one of them.

After four papers, I got it (mostly), but there need to be a will on both sides, the adviser and the student.

Kevin said...

AcidFlask, yes, Pullum does a very good job of arguing the research linguist's position that grammar is something to observe, rather than rules to follow. He is a very good writer and quite witty.

If you look at his writing, though, you will notice that he is quite careful to follow the rules of literate grammar that he claims to despise.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned Gopen & Swan, "The Science of Scientific Writing"!

There is a link here:

I think the problem with teaching writing is that there is a general lack of *scientific* advice about how to write well. The article above gives extremely simple and easily-implemented modules of advice, illustrated with examples and backed up with research. Every science student (and perhaps non-science students too!) should take a look.

Anonymous said...

Some examples of advice from the Gopen & Swan paper:
Information is interpreted more easily and more
uniformly if it is placed where most readers expect
to find it.
The information that begins a sentence establishes
for the reader a perspective for viewing the
sentence as a unit.
Put in the topic position the old information that
links backward; put in the stress position the new
information you want the reader to emphasize.
In our experience, the misplacement of old and
new information turns out to be he No. 1 problem in American professional writing today.
We cannot succeed in making even a single
sentence mean one and only one thing; we can only
increase the odds that a large majority of readers
will tend to interpret our discourse according to our
It may seem obvious that a scientific document is
incomplete without the interpretation of the writer;
it may not be so obvious that the document cannot
"exist" without the interpretation of each reader.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry--I worship EB White in every way and have read every word he has published. If there is a more perfect book (or book on tape as read by the author) than Charlotte's web.....

Mark P

Greg Kochanski said...

The merit of Strunk and White is that it emphasizes simple, clear writing. Clarity is generally not a problem in physics, but since I've moved to speech research and linguistics, I have seen people intentionally write unintelligible junk. Presumably, they were either trying to hide the fact that they didn't know anything, or that their work was logically incoherent. Or, being generous, they wrote that way because they had seen more bad examples than good examples.

So, those of you who can afford to look beyond Strunk and White should count your blessings. There are some areas of research where the concept that a publication should communicate information is still a novelty.