A Grammar Dalek gives thanks

My name is Salvageable, and I am a Grammar Dalek.

Yesterday, as conversation circled the table, and each of us spoke of one thing in our lives for which we were thankful, I gave thanks for a little book—The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. If I had great wealth, I would ensure that each high school student in the United States received a copy of this book, and I would send a free copy to every person who writes for a career or for a hobby.

The English language is fluid, capable of adapting to new information and new ways of self-expression. Some words or phrases appear, become faddish, and mercifully fade from use; others catch on and become part of our common language and culture. No one list of rules (especially one written during the last century) can encompass all that is good about communication in the English language. On the other hand, bad writing remains bad writing from generation to generation. Strunk and White excel in showcasing the mistakes that writers—including your friendly grammar dalek—sometimes make, as well as offering suggestions for improving one’s writing.

Which suggestions of Strunk and White condemn my repeated errors? Rule 15: “Put statements in positive form.” I am at times too enamored of the wordy negative rather than the concise positive sentence. Rule 16: “Use definite, specific, concrete language,” and Rule 17: “Omit needless words.” Much of my self-editing consists of finding better words and crossing out unneeded words. Rule 20: “Keep related words together.” In first drafts, my sentences are complex and wandering. When rewriting, I improve my organization and as a result become easier for others to understand.

Strunk and White mention a few misused words and expressions. They direct writers to remember the difference between “affect” and “effect,” between “less” and “fewer,” and between “like” and “as.” They also share a very helpful essay called “An Approach to Style.” Each writer has his or her own style, and one style is not better than another. Yet one’s writing style can be hindered by bad habits or by overexertion in verbiage. Following the rules and suggestions of Strunk and White would not cause all writers to sound the same, but it would cause all writers to sound better.

Slavish obedience to the rules of grammar hinders effective writing, but ignoring the rules of grammar prevents effective writing. Split infinites and prepositions at the end of sentences are almost always wrong (sorry Jim Kirk and Obi-wan Kenobi), and beginning sentences with conjunctions usually is unnecessary. When one applies the rules of grammar to one’s writing, the result generally is better than the first draft. Grammar daleks like me will always be needed to facilitate communication. We do not seek to exterminate bad writers; we seek to exterminate bad writing. J.

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