I recently read Steven Pinker’s book A Sense of Style. The book is partially a style guide and partially a wandering meditation on grammar, style and language. It’s a quick, light read (especially by Pinker’s standard) and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in the subject. That said, Pinker’s book is not my favorite work on the subject. That commendation is reserved for David Foster Wallace’s Essay `Authority and American Usage’. Ostensibly a 65 page review of Bryan Garner’s `A Dictionary of Modern American Usage,’ DFW’s essay is the definitive word on what grammatical advice is actually about. I laughed, I cried. Read it.
Like many people I know who’ve spent time in various academic settings, I’ve gone through stages in my response to grammar, style and usage. Despite good grades in middle school English, I felt like a clumsy buffoon trying to put together coherent sentences in my early/middle teens. The good grades, mostly likely, were only due to a slavish adherence to set forms: introductory sentence, three sentences of evidence, concluding sentence. Next paragraph, the very same. My prose was awkward, stilted and boring, but I guess my teachers couldn’t well dock marks when I followed instructions so well. But it wasn’t quality writing, even adjusting for age.
I don’t remember when someone first gave me a copy of Strunk & Whyte. I do remember, vividly, the feeling of reading it for the first time. I felt like I’d achieved enlightenment. I felt that while I’d previously be building wood furniture with a glue stick and a butter knife, suddenly someone had given me a saw, hammer and nails. I’m not sure my writing actually improved substantially, but at least I had a direction for such improvement.
For years, I thought that Strunk & Whyte had essentially the correct idea. They presented a confident vision and reasonable set of rules and intuitions, focused on clarity, brevity and elegance. There was, somewhere, a correct way to write expository prose. Then, slowly, over a decade or so, chinks began to appear in the armor of `The Elements of Style’. Even with their expert guidance, comma usage still baffled me (leading to a long-lasting and still problematic addition to the semi-colon). I became more aware of English as a set of only partially related dialects and jargon. I read feminist critiques focusing on the classist and racist implication of proscriptive grammar. I learned that the field of linguistics existed and that linguists were barely more than guessing about how language works.
I became a descriptivist; forgoing my former dedication to the disciples of Strunk, I was convinced that language was an impenetrable maze of conflicting structures, individual and chaotic as humanity itself. The fact that anyone manages to communicate at all is a small miracle (and happens less frequently that we might assume). Dictionaries and usage manuals out to be field research journals, noting the current behaviour and recording it for reference and posterity.
Both DFW’s excellent essay and the pleasant book by Pinker do a good job of finding a middle way. Both reject two common models for the grammarian: the legislator that decrees what good usage shall be and the researcher that describes accepted usages whatever it might be. Instead, DFW’s model for the grammarian is a lawyer. The lawyer hasn’t written the laws and is capable, at some level, of indifference towards their moral value. The lawyer has, however, studied the laws and how they play out in certain contexts. The lawyer can advise her client on how to make best use of the law in a particular situation. Such is the goal of the grammarian: to know, from years of experience, the usage of language in particular context and to give advice to the writer on how to produce a certain effect on a certain audience through prose.