An opinion piece in Sunday's Washington Post had the language world spouting off on one of its most divisive topics: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
Jonathan Yardley, the Post's book reviewer, wrote a loquacious paean to the Strunk and White book. The response was immediate. Geoffrey Pullum, in his excellent Language Log blog, was rendered nearly speechless with outrage, and referred readers to the response from Jan Freeman, who writes a language blog for the Boston Herald.
Freeman pulled no punches. She pointed out that one of the authors, E.B. White, noted essayist, poet, and author of Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web, regularly violated the rules set out in Elements of Style, and called the book 'laughable.' Pullum, linguist and debunker of the myth that Eskimos have thirty (or fifty or a hundred) words for “snow,” called the Yardley piece “pompous, sentimental mush.” He went on to describe Elements of Style a “little hodgepodge of bad grammar advice and stylistic banalities.”
The Elements of Style is only one of any number of guides to using English correctly. The trouble with most of these is that they are prescriptive in nature, that is, they seek to keep language from changing. Languages change, though. They all do. All the time. The only thing as inevitable as language change is our desire to stop it.
In some countries, notably France, there is a panel of learned scholars who pretend to dictate how the language should be used. They have little effect on how language is actually used, regardless of their pronouncements. In German-speaking European countries, the government-mandated spelling reforms of 1996 have yet to be adopted by most people. America has a history of ambitious people attempting to reform English spelling. Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Carnegie, librarian Melvil Dewey, all tried and failed to simplify American English. Attempting to stop language from changing would be just as futile.
In Lonnie Lazar's impassioned post today about the use of the word “impact” as a verb, he links to a page citing the American Heritage Usage Panel's overwhelming disdain for verbing nouns. Even as they proscribe using “impact” as a verb, they note that it has been used as both noun and verb since before the year 1601. Then they remind us that the word “contact” has only been commonly used as a verb for some thirty years, but that no one considers that a no-no anymore.
Note to Strunk, White, Fowler, and Lynn Truss: Verbing Happens!