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Archive for February 9, 2013

Topic E: English, Elements, and Eats

nellie in lancaster hillsELEPHANTS. That’s what first came to mind when I looked for a topic to represent the letter “E” as I address my personal A to Z Topics Challenge.  Of course, I tend to always think of elephants.  In fact, I already posted about elephants.  Even though there is always more to say about them, I decided I would find another “E Topic” to write about.

Topic E:  The Elements of Style & Eats, Shoots and Leaves—Tools for the Frustrated English Teacher

I think I will always consider myself an English Teacher.  I started my official career in academia teaching a full load of composition and literature courses at Purdue University while I studied for my Master’s degree. After that, I taught for over 20 years at a variety of universities and community colleges.  Helping students learn to improve and then control their writing and to realize the connections between reading, writing and thinking are always gratifying activities.

However, long before officially being called “teacher,” I helped people with their studies.  In 8th grade, for example, I formed a student group at my elementary school called Los Profesores, so we older students could work with the kindergarten kids on building reading vocabulary.  Teaching just seemed like the right path for me from the beginning —and it still does.  In 2002, I left the classroom for a dean’s office, but I still continued teaching, just one on one through the occasional tutoring of individual students, friends and neighbors.

Now, ten years later, I really miss the students.  That is why this week I started a class on how to teach online, so I can eventually accept an adjunct teaching position.  If I could put evenings and weekends into writing my dissertation, I can put some time into teaching an online course as well.  Since all the courses in my doctoral program were online, I understand the basic mechanics of the online learning environment and how such courses can truly engage students.  I am excited about possibly moving back into the classroom.

This possibility of teaching an online course as an adjunct professor has me thinking about what books to use for my upcoming students.  Two of my favorites about writing will not really be the best options for the developmental level of students I will undoubtedly be working with.  But they are useful books for the intermediate writer and above, the writer who is fairly independent but needs some reminders and style insights to improve her craft.

The Elements of Style by Strunk & White

elements of style newThe Elements of Style is considered a classic by most, albeit a bit old-fashioned by some.  I was assigned it as a textbook when I was first in graduate school.  Since then, it has been an effective reference guide and a useful tool for me and for select students.  The students who tend to appreciate this little book are serious about learning to improve their writing for academia.  These students do not want to write poetry or fiction, and they may not even be contemplating writing a blog.  No, these students want to produce a basic academic essay that is intended to inform or persuade, and they want to make certain their presentation is as clear, direct, and logical as possible.  This little tome gives these students some good advice.

The Elements of Style—often simply referred to as “Strunk & White”—gives a short review of the basics of clear writing.  The purpose of the book is simple:  “This book aims to give in brief space the principal requirements of plain English style.” This aim is accomplished by sharing information in the following main chapters:  Introductory, Elementary Rules of Usage, Elementary Principles of Composition, A Few Matters of Form, Words & Expressions Commonly Misused, and Spelling. A final section called “An Approach to Style” was added by White in the 1959 edition.

Chapters II and III are the heart of the book and give the most specific instruction on details such as using possessives and commas correctly as well as the most salient points about paragraph construction, active voice and attention to verb tense and parallel constructions. Perhaps the two most oft repeated bits of advice are the seemingly simple points “Make every word tell” and “Omit needless words.”  The authors also address a concern often raised by students who complain that accomplished writers often break the rules the book says to follow.  The book’s advice is sound:  “Unless [the writer] is certain of doing well, he will probably do better to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.”

Those who criticize this book emphasize that it is antiquated.  On the surface, that concern seems valid, especially given that it was first written so long ago.  A review of the book’s history may help you decide if it is worth your time and effort.  William Strunk wrote the first 43-page volume in 1918 for use by his students at Cornell University. The book was later revised in 1935.  In 1957, E. B. White—yes, that E. B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web—was reminded of what he called the “little volume” he had studied from in 1919 as one of Strunk’s students. He remembered the book at a “summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English” and wrote a feature about Strunk and his commitment to lucid prose in The New Yorker.

Strunk had died in 1946, so when MacMillian and Company wanted to publish an updated version of The Elements of Style in 1959, they turned to White for help. That 1959 version was modernized and expanded by White into a slightly bigger but still little volume of less than 90 pages.  This version sold 2 million copies that first year; in the next 4 decades, 8 million more copies were sold. The fourth edition (2000) finally changed the advice about masculine pronouns and their antecedents.

elements of style 2 blackIn 2002, Geoffrey Pullium, faculty member at Edinburgh University with his own grammar book on the market, criticized The Elements of Style for “its toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity” as well as its practice of “often flouting its own rules.”  In 2005, a review in The Boston Globe labeled it “an aging zombie of a book” that presented “antiquated pet peeves.” A 50th Anniversary Edition of the two-authored book was published in 2009.  Two years later, Time magazine listed The Elements of Style as one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923.

Is this little book right for you?  Maybe.  It is a good book that offers advice that is still timely for certain writers.  If you want to write poetry or fiction, this book is not for you.  If you are content with your presentations and just want to double-check commas rules or figure out how to stop avoiding the use of semi-colons, this book is not the best fit for you either.  However, if you are writing to share information and to present arguments logically and if you have the basics of writing under some control but want to streamline and perfect your presentation, then The Elements of Style should be able to meet your needs.  If applied, the rules presented in Strunk and White will help an individual writer improve his/her writing.

I’ll conclude my comments on this book by sharing this little video that tries to capture the heart of the volume for a more modern audience.  Not sure if it will entice you to give this book a chance or not.  Oh well.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss

eats shoots and leavesEat, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation was first published in 2003 with an American edition coming out in 2004.  This unassuming little book quickly rose to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List.  Lynne Truss, its author, was praised as being witty and droll and for drawing attention to the vast misuses of punctuation evident in the world at large. Not all praised Truss for her efforts. One critic in The New Yorker pointed out punctuation errors in her own work; another critic—this one a teacher—charged that her concerns would not allow the language to grow and change. I dare say, however, that most who read her book get a good chuckle and even learn a thing or two about punctuation.

Of course, her primary audience is others who see themselves as Punctuation Sticklers like herself.  I include myself in that group.  We are the ones who cringe with every spelling error and misplaced apostrophe seen in ads, store windows and movie marques. As Truss explains, “Everywhere one looks, there are signs of ignorance and indifference.”  She then expands her comments, noting how frustrated Punctuation Sticklers feel in the face of so many errors.  “Part of one’s despair, of course, is that the world cares nothing for the little shocks endured by the sensitive sticklers while we look in horror at a badly punctuated sign. The world carries on around us, blind to our plight.”

Truss has written this book to let other Punctuation Sticklers know they are not alone.  But she also wants to instruct all readers in the power of correct punctuation.  This primary educational purpose is simple: “The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning.”  Her goal is clear and lucid prose, much like the goal of Strunk and White.  She just focuses on punctuation!  In addition to her introductory comments and a bibliography, her chapters are the following;

  • The Tractable Apostrophe
  • That’ll Do, Comma
  • Airs and Graces
  • Cutting a Dash
  • A Little Used Punctuation Mark
  • Merely Conventional Signs

Truss fills her chapters with numerous historical points and pertinent anecdotes about punctuation and its role in clear communication.  Her best feature, however, is the myriad examples she provides that prove her point about misused punctuation confusing meaning.  The back cover of her book tells the story that illustrates the confusion inherent in her title:

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air. ‘Why?’ asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes toward the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“’I’m a panda,’ he says at the door. ‘Look it up.’ The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation. ‘Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.’”

Yes, that errant comma has caused all the grief. As Truss concludes, “Punctuation really does matter even if it is only occasionally a matter of life and death.” Her numerous examples throughout the book are what make this a good learning tool for students.  If they can see subverted meaning, then they are more likely to be cautious about their own punctuation use.  This book would not necessarily be the one to use to instruct college students in the rules of grammar and punctuation; a more classical handbook gives a fuller review of all the rules.

eats shoots and leaves for kidsI would recommend Eats, Shoots and Leaves for the student who is ready to take her own writing more seriously and thus needs to perfect her use of punctuation in support of clearer meaning.  I would also recommend this book to teachers, writers, and general Punctuation Sticklers.  Seeing the book’s value as an educational tool, Truss has published versions geared toward younger students, hoping to teach them attention to correct punctuation from the beginning. In 2008, for example, she published Twenty-odd Ducks: Why, Even Punctuation Marks Count! for kids six years old and up.

If you have not yet seen this fun little book, give it a look.  Even if you are not a Punctuation Stickler, I think you will chuckle over the examples and be able to see how correct punctuation can enhance clarity in all writing. The following example from Eats, Shoots and Leaves gives two versions of the same note, altering the meaning dramatically by altering the punctuation. It is my favorite example that Truss provides!


Dear Jack,

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior.  You have ruined me for other men.  I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy—will you let me be yours?  Jill


Dear Jack,

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior.  You have ruined me. For other men I yearn!  For you I have no feelings whatsoever.  When we’re apart I can be forever happy.  Will you let me be?  Yours, Jill

Now how fun is that?  See how some students would be able to appreciate this book?

I’ll conclude my comments on this little book by sharing a video that gives a Punctuation Stickler’s exuberant recommendation of Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Enjoy.

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