Celebrating the Elements of Style…and Tollbooths

Teaching a course that satisfies the ABA’s “rigorous writing experience” has caused me to pause and remember the following exhortation from my mother, an eighth-grade English teacher: “Bad grammar is like spinach between your teeth: No one hears what you’re saying because they are staring at the spinach.” In hopes of cutting down on the amount of spinach, I have required that students purchase The Bluebook and The Redbook, which admittedly starts to sound a bit like a legal Dr. Seuss rhyme. I have also encouraged them to purchase Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style, with its enthusiastic support for brevity, the active voice, and the serial comma. I would greatly appreciate thoughts on other resources that professors have found helpful when trying to insert writing skills into an upper-level seminar, especially when facing tight time constraints.

Thinking of instilling a love of words in younger generations, a delightful piece in this week’s New Yorker on the fiftieth birthday of The Phantom Tollbooth brought back fond memories of reading about King Azaz the Unabridged who held a banquet where guests literally ate their words. The author, however, rightly points out one concern about the book’s durability: “We’re getting rid of all our tollbooths! Kids are going to read the book and ask, Yeah, but what’s a tollbooth?”

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13 Responses

  1. Margaret Lewis says:

    Thanks for the link. I agree that efforts to banish the passive voice are misguided, but I am all for self-awareness when using the passive versus active voice. As the Elements itself admits, “This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” All things in moderation.

  2. AYY says:

    If you want some good examples of persuasive writing for your students to absorb, you might want to look at some of Thomas Macaulay’s parliamentary speeches. They’ll knock your socks off Also some of Cicero’s speeches.
    There’s also Orwell’s classic essay and Joseph Williams’s book.

  3. Ted says:

    self-awareness is good… but it is unclear whether Strunk & White had much. In the passage warning against the use of passive voice, they repeatedly use the passive voice.

    They are not alone.


  4. Anon321 says:

    On the general demerits of The Elements of Style, see http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497.

    In my view (and in the view of Language Log’s bloggers), Joseph M. Williams’s writing guides are far superior. They’re not only more usable than Strunk & White, but have the added benefit of being linguistically well-grounded and internally consistent. Strunk & White, by contrast, were often talking nonsense and flagrantly violating their own purported rules.

  5. Ken Rhodes says:

    Margaret, I commend your efforts. In *any* professional career (perhaps excepting chiropracty) the ability to express oneself effectively is often underrated. No matter their technical skills, the programmers who worked for me found it much easier to gain the confidence of our clients when they learned to write a clear concise memo documenting their work.

    And to those respondents above who point out the problems with Strunk and White, I remind them that when you’re lost in the desert, even a rudimentary estimate of direction based on the Sun’s shadow is preferable to wandering aimlessly without a compass.

  6. Margaret Lewis says:

    By no means do I think there is a perfect grammar guide. The English language is far too complex and fraught with debate. At least I can hope to give students a brief break from “issue spotting” and turn the focus to the mechanics of writing.

    I have little experience with chiropractors, but I’ve found that the ability to express oneself effectively is a valuable skill for yoga instructors. Articulating how the human anatomy works is a helpful step in trying to get people to coax their bodies into unfamiliar positions.

  7. Edward Still says:

    Those who routinely omit serial commas should be branded as serial killers.

  8. Matt says:

    Do people really know what toll booth are less today than in the (fairly recent) past? I guess that not everyone spends their time driving between Philadelphia and New York City quite as much as I do, but toll booths seem pretty common to me. I only very vaguely remember the “phantom” one, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t take EZ-Pass, but they are still recognizable, no?

  9. A.J. Sutter says:

    Whence cometh the wisdom of eighth-grade English teachers? Mine used to have us write the phrase “TOPIC SENTENCE” in yard-high letters on the blackboard (have those gone the way of tollbooths yet?) to make us remember that every paragraph should have one. While over the decades I’ve progressed to subtler applications of this rule than, say, “The bee is an interesting animal” and “The main resource of Zambia is copper,” I still rarely violate it, and always think twice before doing so.

  10. AYY says:

    Forget to mention Prof Lindgren’s takedown of the Texas Style Manual. 78 Cal.L.Rev 1677 (1990)

  11. I heartily second the recommendation of the work of Joseph Williams. His Style: Toward Clarity and Grace is at least two orders of magnitude better than Strunk & White. And much of what is says is especially relevant to legal writing.

  12. Margaret Lewis says:

    Thanks to all for the suggestions. I look forward to reading the Williams book. As for tollbooths, I went through several when driving between NYC and Maine the other weekend. However, when visiting family in Oregon, the only time I see them is when entering parking garages. So perhaps kids in the Pacific NW will simply think Digitopolis is lurking in a parking garage.