Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Elements of Totebaggery

Totebaggers love rules. In place of direct experience and reason — that is, the ability and inclination to think for oneself — they have authorities to appeal to. Like the authorities who warn you not to end sentences with prepositions. And not to write sentence fragments.

Leonard Lopate is again our limit case. The Elements of Style is one of his favorite books. And of course it is. Strunk and White is the totebagger's Code of Hammurabi, not something to read or even to consult, but something to submit to, or at least to claim to submit to. Worst of all, it is something to subject young students to: students who might otherwise come to hear and love the music in English are instead taught to chant the monotonic dirge of arid prose and fatuous rules.

Ever read anything by Leonard Lopate? I didn't think so. The thing about Strunk & White is that no one in their right mind would want to read anything that conformed to its prosaic strictures. One writer who knew this was, well, E.B. White. The fundamentalist evangelist of prose has been caught in the back of the limo with the hookers and cocaine of prescriptivism: adjectives and adverbs. The very non-totebaggy people at Language Log point out that White's own use of modifiers was positively Proustian in comparison to what he preached to the congregation.

Which leads me to wonder how it can be that Leonard Lopate left À la recherche du temps perdu off his list of favorite books.


At March 1, 2005 at 4:29 AM, Blogger Andrew Purvis said...

Should we take it, then, that you find less objction with those of us who find value in, but do not, as you say, "submit to" Strunk & White? It is a guide, like any handbook.

Students, however, should be subject to such guides, though you make the case for that right off. Students of writing are not generally well prepared, and many come to college with an understanding of punctuation and grammar that twenty years ago would have resulted in junior high school failures.

Perhaps we would do well to look at the other end of the spectrum as embodied by Hemingway. The man can violate practically every rule of English in a single Nick Adams story, but he can do so because he knows what the rules are. Hemingway breaks the rules to make an impression, but those who can't follow them in the beginning are lost.

Perhaps Lopate takes the rules too seriously, much as Kate "The Terrible" Turabian does, and that would be just a little sad.

Nonetheless, trying to teach writing to students who lack a firm grasp of rules would be like trying to teach music theory and composition to tone-deaf students who can't read sheet music.

At March 3, 2005 at 10:06 AM, Blogger Trey Desolay said...

What makes Leonard Lopate King Totebagger is that he counts Strunk & White as one of his favorite books.

I have no idea why you'd care whether I have less objection to you finding value in S&W as a teaching aid, but as a handbook of punctuation and grammar it strikes me as almost useless. The book contains only a dozen pages of such material. If you are finding that your students have sub-junior high understandings of these topics, I would think that you would find this material to be woefully inadequate.

The bulk of the book is devoted to - surprise - style, and presents as "rules" such completely unmotivated conventions as "do not begin a sentence with 'however.'"


I once signed a young and promising scholar to write a book. His insistence on following S&W to the letter made his prose completely unreadable. Unable to talk him out of his totebaggery, I dropped the book. It was never published.

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