The Evolution Of The English Language Since The Elements Of Style


In preparation for an upcoming blog, I was leafing through my copy of The Elements of Style, which is generally considered a writer’s bible. It was originally written as a textbook for a Cornell University English course by Professor William Strunk Jnr in 1919. In 1957, the author EB White (who coincidentally took that course) was commissioned to revise it for general publication. Yes, that EB White. The one who wrote Charlotte’s Web.

As I leafed, I was struck by how much of the advice is now irrelevant or ignored. Plenty of it is still important and even now I recommend it to anyone who is serious about writing well. But nearly one hundred years has passed since its advice was first committed to paper and all languages evolve. Not just new words coming into usage and old ones falling by the wayside but the meaning of words changing and rules being completely subverted.
So I thought it would be interesting to explore the advice in The Elements of Style that is no longer as definitive as it once was.

The Elements of Style advice on the word contact: “As a transitive verb, the word is vague and self-important. Do not contact people; get in touch with them, look them up, phone them, find them, or meet them.”

Well, I’m sure it’s much to the distress of Professor Strunk and Mr White that we contact people all the time now. In fact, the act of contacting someone has taken on a formal air while the suggested alternatives all sound very informal to the ear of someone writing or reading these days.

Customise, Finalise, Personalise, Prioritise, Utilise, Etc (AKA Customize, Finalize, Personalize, Prioritize, Utilize, Etc)
The Elements of Style advice on –ise (AKA –ize – after all, The Elements of Style is an American book) words: “Many good and useful verbs do end in –ize: summarize, fraternize, harmonize, fertilize. But there is a growing list of abominations: containerize, prioritize, finalize, to name three.” And a little later: “Why say ‘utilize’ when there is the simple, unpretentious word use?”

Tell us how you really feel. Uncomfortable, I suspect, as the authors roll over and over in their graves. Because the verbs are out of the bag and refusing to get back in.

The Elements of Style advice on the word data: “Like strata, phenomena and media, data is a plural and is best used with a plural verb.”

The book then provides an incorrect example (“This data is misleading.”) and a correct example (“These data are misleading.”) And then it begrudgingly admits, “The word, however, is slowly gaining acceptance as a singular.”

That slow gaining of acceptance is complete and most readers feel the first example is correct and the construction of the second example is awkward.

The Elements of Style advice on the word enthuse: “An annoying verb growing out of the noun enthusiasm. Not recommended.”

Well, we enthuse about plenty of things these days, even the use of the word enthuse.

The Elements of Style advice on the word insightful: “The word is a suspicious overstatement for ‘perceptive’.”

Yet when I right click on the word perceptive, one of the synonyms Microsoft Word gives is the word insightful. And when I open my Macquarie International English Dictionary to the word insight, the first definition opens with the word perceptiveness. If the dictionary has succumbed, I think the rest of us should have no qualms about doing the same.

The Elements of Style advice on the word literally: “Often incorrectly used in support of exaggeration or violent metaphor.”

I’m still with them on this one but we hear it so often that the dictionary now includes both the original definition and the incorrect definition. But every time I hear a teenage girl exclaim, “My head literally exploded,” I will continue to hope this is accurate according to the Strunk and White rules.

The Elements of Style advice on the word meaningful: “A bankrupt adjective.” The ill-advised usage is demonstrated with this sentence: “His was a meaningful contribution.” And the preferred option: “His contribution counted heavily.”

I don’t know about you but I know which one I prefer. And it’s not their preferred option.

The Elements of Style advice on the word ongoing: “Newfound adjective… to be avoided because [it is] inexact and clumsy… Select instead a word whose meaning is clear. As a simple test, transform the participles to verbs. It is possible to upset something… But…to ongo?”

Yet another argument that might have been perfectly reasonable except for one thing: people use it all the time. So much so that its meaning is no longer unclear (if it ever was). We should all be prepared for the word ongoing to be an ongoing presence in the English language and its modern evolution.

The Elements of Style advice on the word prestigious: “Often an adjective of last resort. It’s in the dictionary, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it.”

According to the Macquarie International English Dictionary, the word prestigious comes from the Latin praestigiae, which means “illusions” or “juggler’s tricks”. So perhaps given the word’s origins, Strunk and White might have some justification. But if English is good at anything, it’s repurposing words from other languages. After all, that’s pretty much all English is.

Additionally, why anyone would object to or disagree with the statement “The Nobel Prize is a prestigious award” is beyond me.

Split Infinitive
According to The Elements of Style, the split infinitive has been torturing pedants since the fourteenth century. The advice given is to avoid it “unless the writer wishes to place unusual stress on the adverb”.

I think we might need to call this battle lost. And after all, any broken rule that gives us something as memorable as “to boldly go where no man has gone before” can’t be all that bad.

My advice is to consider each usage on its merits. While some, as the Star Trek example above demonstrates, work very well, others do not flow. It’s up to the writer to be able to recognise which is which.

The Elements of Style advice on the word very: “Use this word sparingly. Where emphasis is necessary, use words strong in themselves.”

Consider this conversation between someone running a temperature and an English pedant.

“Are you warm?” asks the pedant.

“Very,” responds the patient, wiping his brow.

“So you’re not warm then, you’re hot?”

“What’s the difference?”

“The difference is in the treatment – whether I open a window to let in a cool breeze or give you a cold water enema.”

“The window will be fine. Stop reading that damn book!”

The word very is in very common usage these days and I suspect there is no winding it back or indeed a need to wind it back. I’m not just very sure of it, I’m certain.

*First published in Project December: A Book about Writing



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