My take on Strunk and White: a personal story

October 20, 2018

This blog was originally posted on theartofcopyediting website blog page.

 

This blog is my response to an article shared by John McIntyre on Facebook and the comments there. My first instinct was to post my reply there, but I felt that my response was long and rather personal. So I decided to put it up as a blog here on my website and provide a link to it in that discussion.

 

You can read the Facebook post and comments here:

 

https://www.facebook.com/jemcintyre/posts/10100916464295202
 

 

So, here’s my personal experience of Strunk and White (S&W) from the other side of the globe. I’m from India and I’ll be completing 55 by the next quarter.

 

Initiation

 

I stumbled on a copy of S&W in the mid-1990s, soon after I entered the editing profession. Years later, when I read Arthur Plotnik’s advice (in Elements of Editing) that “you don’t refer to this quintessential little book of grammar, usage, and writing tips; you re-read it, twice a year,” it struck a chord within me, because I’d been doing something similar almost instinctively.

 

I had to train copyeditors very early in my career (almost from my second year into editing), and I often went by my instincts, probably because of my strong reading habit. Soon I had about 55 guidelines for my copyeditors, which were simple statements of what I was actually doing when I was editing sentences. Over time and with more reading, the guidelines came down to 14 rules, grouped into four categories.

 

The path

 

My final version of the principles that govern writing/editing are as follows:

 

WORDS AND SENTENCES
 

1.  Add an apostrophe followed by an s to indicate the possessive case of singular nouns.
2.  Do not (physically or mentally) break sentences into two or more parts.
3.  In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.

 

GRAMMAR AND SYNTAX
 

4.  The number of the subject determines the number of the verb.
5.  Use parenthetic commas to set off nonrestrictive elements; do not, however, set off elements that are defining or essential for the meaning of the sentence.
6.  Keep related words together.
7.  An introductory element must be logically connected with the main clause.
8.  Ensure that every pronoun (a) has an unambiguous antecedent, (b) takes the appropriate case, and (c) follows subject–verb agreement norms.

 

PUNCTUATION MARKS
 

9.  To join two independent clauses, use (a) a comma followed by a conjunction, (b) a semicolon, or (c) a semicolon followed by a sentence modifier.
10. Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation.
11. Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.

 

BEYOND GRAMMAR: POWER OF EXPRESSION
 

12. Express coordinate ideas in similar form.
13. Omit needless words.
14. Be judicious in the use of active and passive voice.

 

Of these, I now teach only the first 12—I believe the last two rules are better learned after mastering the first 12. I’d like to highlight two important aspects of these rules:

  • These are principles that have stood the test of time, despite the changes that the English language has gone through.

  • I have placed these rules in a certain sequence—each rule almost “leading” to the next.

All these rules are from S&W. I have modified the wording in a few of them and have perhaps enlarged the scope of some of them.

 

But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

 

Progress

I outlined these as part of my presentation titled “Precise and uniform definitions of light, standard, and professional levels of editing—A proposal” at Editing Goes Global, Editors Canada’s first international conference at Toronto in June 2015.

 

A huge chunk of that proposal was based on these rules I had picked out from S&W (expanded later under the heading Sharing).

 

I believe that with these 14 rules (principles), you can do almost any kind of writing or editing in the English language.

 

In my book on copyediting (a work in progress, currently about 312,500 words), I cover hyphenation, en dash, abbreviations, capitalization, lists, article use, tense, and typographic improvisations under what I call “Some nuances of written English.”

 

I have spent my life handling scholarly books and journals. You can put me through any kind of editorial testing. I don’t expect to get 100% (we’re all human beings), but I’m quite sure that I’ll easily cross 80% (Editors Canada’s cutoff for a pass, for example), and perhaps manage 90+%.

I owe it all to my perusal of S&W.

 

Proof of progress

For many years, wherever I worked, no matter who the copyeditor was, I used to review line by line every single copyediting sample that was ever sent out to a client/publisher. And I do not remember a single instance where a client had said that our editing was not up to the mark. (We may not have got the job on some occasions; but these were totally unrelated to the quality of work produced.)

 

My resume has four pages of accolades and testimonials listed in chronological order, from almost every major academic publisher, from people in responsible positions, almost every one of whom is a native speaker of the English language. I’m giving a small sample of the testimonials here:

  • the quality of the sample copyediting is on par with that of the copyediting done in the US

  • a masterful job of editing

  • your copyeditors would do a better job on a tough project when compared with our own freelance editors in the US

  • your copyeditors did considerably better than everyone else whom XXX tested

  • your copyeditors have successfully passed a copyediting test that US copyeditors could not

  • you’ve been very successful in building copyediting teams, and we’d like to see if we can apply any of your principles on our end

Is this some kind of bragging? Not really. We all know that Indian copyediting is, in general, a far cry from international standards. But these are real comments received on specific projects. And these are samples from a four-page listing. All I want to convey is that I’m not a native speaker but have still managed to receive such accolades simply because of my ardent study of S&W. I owe my entire career to S&W.

 

But that doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes. I have made incorrect statements in some of my classes and even in some pieces of writing, but I’ve always gone back and corrected them wherever possible.

 

It doesn’t also mean that I do not see any flaws in S&W.

 

Awakening

Almost 30 years ago, when I was working for my PhD, a single line on the first page of a book shook the wits out of me. It said: “A book is a mirror; if an ass peers into it, no apostle will look out.” That day, I learned the importance of being devoted to anything I wanted to learn.

 

When I first read S&W, there was no specific like or dislike for the book. No doubt E. B. White’s introduction to the book left a lasting impression in my mind. But what I did was to periodically review the principles I was using repeatedly.

 

Over time I realized that the most important principles I was using were already there in that tiny book.

 

Knowing

People who seriously work their way up are generally happy to receive appreciations, testimonials, or even simple acknowledgments of the good work they do. And sometimes there are also periods of frustration that their work is not quite recognized or appreciated. These are all part of the maturing process a human being goes through and I was no exception.

 

But somewhere down the line, as I continued to plod on in my quest, I sensed—gradually, imperceptibly—that I have been gifted with a knowledge that is not easy to gain. With time, that conviction grew, and at some point, I was certain. I knew, and I knew the value and worth of what I knew. At that point, all ideas of recognition of my worth by somebody else, expectations of appreciation, and the like seemed meaningless. Amid all the hassles of life, I was internally content. The only feeling that remained was: Why not pass on what I’ve learned to anyone who may be interested in learning it?

 

But even then, I did not have the drive to quit my job and start out on my own. A full two years had to pass before I had that full conviction. Early this year, I quit my regular company job and started The Art of Copyediting, through which I now offer 23 courses on copyediting.

 

Sharing

 

As somebody who has cherished the use of the English language all these years, I’m least distracted by Professor Pullum’s attack on S&W. I’ve lived through it all to know the truth of the rules that I’ve gathered and made into a bouquet. In a personal sense, The Art of Copyediting is an offering to my two teachers, Karen Judd (author of Copyediting—A Practical Guide) and S&W, none of whom I’ve seen in my life.

 

I have stated on my website that the basic course on writing/editing that I offer is a kind of resurrection of S&W. Till now I’ve been teaching and training only in India, but when I offer my training to the world—I intend to do that shortly—the West will be in a much better position (than India) to appreciate the all-inclusiveness of the training.

 

I do not teach only what is in S&W. There are many things that I have learned from different books and from practical experience. But I realized that all the nuggets I’d gathered can be bundled as subrules within the 14 principles I have culled from S&W. That is why S&W is remarkable.

 

The 14 items are not just a set of rules, but an organized set of principles that can be used by any writer for effective expression of one’s ideas. Each rule connects with as well as supports the others. The ideas contained in them cannot be learned easily, which is why I have developed these 14 rules further in the form of intermediate and advanced courses in copyediting.

 

One unit of the intermediate course deals mainly with Rules 5, 7, and 9. It introduces easily recognizable sentence patterns related to

  • the restrictive–nonrestrictive conundrum and

  • the number of subjects and the number of associated actions.

And trust me, these sentence patterns, particularly the restrictive–nonrestrictive ones, will be an eye opener even for a Western audience. Why? Because of their practical use in a step-by-step learning process.

 

Another unit of the intermediate course relates to using “catchwords”—words that you catch hold of and examine—as a means to mastering some of these rules. Another part discusses the many methods available to a writer for indicating syntax: it compares and contrasts punctuation marks, their overlapping and distinctive features, as well as effective and ineffective ways of using them.

 

And I take all these further to explain nearly 30 principles of advanced editing, every one of which can be linked to one or more of the 14 principles of writing.

 

I repeat: The intermediate and the advanced courses are all based on the same 14 principles I have listed above.

 

I summarized all the above as part of my presentation at the Editors Canada conference at Toronto in June 2015.

 

So, what do we have in summary? We have a set of 14 principles that cover the whole nine yards—principles that can be applied for

  • teaching and training

  • editing

  • assessing work done by an editor

  • defining levels of editing

  • helping editors move from one level to another

I also believe that these principles can be used for teaching English at the college level.

You still want me to believe that S&W is worthless?

 

Reflections

 

When we read a book, we have to look at the useful things it presents. Nowadays, we do read a lot of meaningless junk on the internet, and perhaps even in some printed books. But we don’t have to indulge in writing scathing attacks on what’s wrong with a book. It may be better to focus our attention on what is relevant and simply ignore the rest.

 

So, when a distinguished professor analyzes a book as influential as S&W but chooses to focus only on areas where “an assault could successfully be made on the bastions of its brevity,” it basically indicates—at least to me—a misplaced sense of judgment, or perhaps an uncharitable disposition.

I understand the importance of grammar. But I teach using a minimum of grammatical terms and use more of logical questioning and reasoning, which I believe is the basis of grammar. I respect grammar, but I do not want it to overrule my intention to communicate—does not every child prove that one can learn the basics of a language without learning its grammar?—nor do I want it to interfere with my reflections on what somebody is trying to convey.

 

A good editorial mind does have a sharp fault-finding ability. Paradoxically, despite an editor’s long learning curve, it is easier to develop the intellect; it is difficult to develop the heart. That is why we sometimes pray for an “understanding heart.” (A saint put it jokingly: “It is only the heart that understands; the intellect, with all its pride, always stands ‘above your shoulder’—it is always ‘upperstanding’!”)

 

So, instead of criticizing a book—and that too a book containing some time-tested ideas—a better approach can be to pick up the best things there and build it further. Now when I compare and contrast the professor’s approach with mine—John’s post and the comments there were what triggered this—I feel that is exactly what I have done, undeterred perhaps by a distinguished linguist’s criticism of the work.

 

The Wikipedia entry on The Elements of Style has this line: “In 2016, the Open Syllabus Project listed The Elements of Style as the most frequently assigned text in US academic syllabi, based on an analysis of 933,635 texts appearing in over 1 million syllabi.” And till the time Professor Pullum published his criticism of S&W, we had often read that the book has helped thousands of people all over the world.

 

Which makes me wonder: Never perhaps in the field of English language was so much owed by so many (students, teachers, writers, editors) to the authors of a tiny book!

 

Also, would you dismiss the whole of US academia (and the thousands who have benefitted) in one stroke simply because of a scathing attack on the book by a single distinguished professor? Are there not people (or organizations) in the United States that have sensed the book’s value and persistence for 90 years? Here I am, an unknown person from India, trying to promote S&W for the spirit of what they stood for!

 

There is a saying in India that if a learner is sincere, he or she will learn even from a fool. But how many have that genuine devotion to learning, which is so captivatingly expressed by White in his Introduction? If that element is missing, one may not learn much. As a great thinker put it, “Truth, no doubt, humbly retires before such arrogant originality.”

 

The four sliders on my homepage indicate the four stages of learning and growing, whatever be one’s chosen field.

 

I have written this piece to drive home two points:

  • When people ask other language experts in the field whether Professor Pullum is right, the general answer they receive is: “Yes, he is right.” But that’s because the professor has chosen his arguments very carefully, keeping a safe distance from all the good points in the book.

  • But S&W is not as bad as the professor has made it to be. It has some errors and may have things that may not be relevant today. But it has gems that have withstood 100 years of English—gems that some may take years to grasp fully.

Through the Art of Copyediting courses, I hope to reestablish the basic principles of writing given out by S&W.

 

 

This is perhaps just my story—and perhaps the story of many unknown editors like me. But the story itself may not be there had it not been for the inspiration I’d gained by reading S&W.

 

Please feel free to share or comment. You can mail me at info@theartofcopyediting.com.

 

Venkataraman Anantharaman (Venkat for short) has spent most of his time learning as well as training young minds into the art of copyediting. After obtaining a PhD in clinical biochemistry, he decided to explore the writing/editing aspects of science, and have been at it for over 22 years. After working in companies in India all these years—and with almost all major publishers—he has now started out on his own to do what he has always wanted to do: provide copyediting training to the publishing industry. He offers copyediting training to companies (in person in India) as well as to freelance editors (through webinars). Training is one of his core strengths, and he has evolved his own methods of teaching copyediting over the years. He is writing a book tentatively titled Principles of Copyediting (currently about 312,500 words). He has been working on it off and on for the last 10 years (with material collected over more than two decades). Concepts and examples presented in his training/webinars are simply those culled from his book.

 

 

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