A Fine Mess of Grammar

March 28, 2011 § 4 Comments

Being the grammarian nerd I am, I get a little excited over things like the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style that came out last fall (hey, it was 7 years since the last one), or last week’s news that the AP Stylebook decided (finally!) to remove the hyphen from the word email, following last year’s move to make website one word, lowercased.

I love the monthly Q&As which CMOS hosts and the cheekiness of their responses, as in:

Q. My library shelves are full. I need to make some difficult decisions to make space for new arrivals. Is there any reason to keep my CMOS 14th and 15th editions?

A. What a question. If you had more children, would you give away your firstborn? Find a board and build another shelf.

and on taking hyphen concerns a little too far:

Q. If you have to call someone “Jeff-bear,” is the hyphen appropriate, or would “Jeffbear” suffice? The new Manual doesn’t say.

A. I’m sorry, but when we got to the term “Jeff-bear,” the Hyphenation Committee couldn’t agree and things started get nasty, so we left it out. I’m afraid you’re on your own.

But my favorite reference book is still the classic Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. In the first place, reading Strunk and White is not like reading your high school English textbook. E.B. White, a student of Strunk, writes:

“When [Strunk] delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, “Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”

"Well, Susan, this is a fine mess you are in." - Strunk and White

And there you have all you need to know about editing. White explains that in reviving Strunk’s original grammar book, he has not tried to “soften [Strunk’s] commands, or modify his pronouncements, or remove the special objects of his scorn,” but instead “preserved the flavor of his discontent while slightly enlarging the scope of the discussion.” Because, really, what is a grammarian without scorn and discontentment?

In the second place, the book has since been illustrated by Maira Kalman – American author, illustrator, designer, artist, and probably a bunch of other roles in which she’s equally as talented. She stumbled across the book at a yard sale and felt the sentences were so vivid, they needed painting.

A Few Matters of Form

In 2007, she presented on this project and others on TED talks, where she is delightful and funny. I love the question she asks on creating (at 14 1/2 min in), “How much truth do we tell; how do we know when we’re ourselves?”

And as she painted her illustrations for the book, she envisioned there being a ballet or opera to go along with it as well. So she commissioned composer Nico Muhly to create nine songs based on Strunk and White’s grammar rules. You can listen to a few on NPR, including one featuring their famous rule, “Be Obscure Clearly.” I love it when multiple forms of art work together. And when it’s done clearly.

"Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!" - Strunk & White


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