Thursday, April 16, 2009

An Alternative for Some Readers of Strunk and White

A guest post by Abraham Piper

There isn’t really a need for more negativity about Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style today on its 50th anniversary. Justin already linked to Geoffrey Pullum’s refreshingly scathing review, and that is enough.

So instead of whining about that little book, I want to offer an alternative of sorts.

Pullum mentioned it, accurately calling it “simply marvelous,” and I want to say a little more about it: Merriam Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage.

First off, it’s not a dictionary of definitions. A reference book, yes, but not a list of what words mean.

It’s a compendium of articles that deal with “common problems of confused or disputed usage.” What sets this book apart from other usage books is that the opinions in it are based on evidence from the 1300s to today.

First the writers lay out the question to be dealt with. Then they offer opinions from other grammarians. Then they cite examples, both historical and contemporary, of how fluent, often highly-esteemed, English writers have settled the disputed point. Finally, when it’s fitting, they offer a recommendation for what you and I should do as writers.
  • Do you want to know about using they/their/them in reference to singular nouns? Page 733.
  • Are you curious where to put however in your sentence? Page 395
  • Are you allowed to say “try and…”? Page 750
  • Is the question of to split or not to split your infinitives keeping you up at night? Page 704
  • Are you still uncomfortable with prepositions at the ends of sentences? Page 609
  • And so much more! This book answers questions you didn’t know you have.
It isn’t necessarily a book for college freshmen or beginning writers as The Elements of Style is presumed to be. But I’ll tell you who it is for: anyone so nerdy that they care enough about English usage to discuss the value of Strunk and White, whether fighting for or against them.

I’d say it’s also for anyone who cares enough about grammar to read to the end of an article about a dictionary.