Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


A friend recently posted a link to this article about whether high school teachers need to focus less on classic literature and more on the basics of grammar and basic writing skills. Does it have to be either/or? Maybe it could be a little less of one and a little more of the other?
The first person who introduced me to Strunk and White's The Elements of Style wasn't a professor or mildly intimidating nun, it was Stephen Freaking King. The Elements of Style is an 86-page guide to the basics of grammar. It's basic enough to read in an hour, but comprehensive enough that it's the first resource I turn to when I'm not sure on a point of grammar. It doesn't contain absolutely everything you need to know to be a good writer, but it sure tells you everything you need to know to write a decent writing 101 essay. If all high school English teachers did was make kids read the thing and take a test on it once a year, English 101 professors in colleges all over would be much happier people. If high school English teachers ran every paper by Strunk and White, made kids write and rewrite until they pass the Strunk and White test. I mean, I realize English teachers have a lot to deal with. Maybe the author of the Slate article is a little bit right - maybe we could forgo a Moby Dick or a Young Goodman Brown. I mean, did I really have to read both David Copperfield and Great Expectations my Freshman year? I still have nightmares that involve taking a test on... crap. I can't remember a single thing about either book. There was something about an old lady in a wedding dress, I think. Possibly about someone running into the ocean, but I may have that confused with The Bell Jar. What I'm saying is that, while we don't have to throw the dead white guy cannon away entirely, the author's right - we could probably dedicate a bit more time to the practical. Filling out a job application. Writing a coherent college entrance essay. A cover letter. A letter to your kid's teacher. Nouns, verbs, punctuation. 

  • Form the possessive singular of nouns with 's
  • In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last
  • Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas
  • Place a comma before and or but introducing an independent clause
  • Do not join independent clauses by a comma
  • Do not break sentences in two
  • A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject
  • Divide words at line-ends, in accordance with their formation and pronunciation
  • Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic
  • As a rule, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence; end it in conformity with the beginning
  • Use the active voice
  • Put statements in positive form
  • Omit needless words
  • Avoid a succession of loose sentences
  • Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form
  • Keep related words together
  • In summaries, keep to one tense
  • Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end

That's it. You learn those things and you're a heck of a lot better off than if you remember what the heck David Copperfield was about (something about moors, the Ides of March, baseball? Seriously, nothing. Not a single thing).

For that matter, how come I had to learn about sines and proofs and right angles, yet I still don't understand compound interest, the metric system, or my health insurance explanation of benefits statements?
Why did I dissect a baby piggy when I had to learn not to give my cat lettuce the hard way? Okay, well, I dissected a baby piggy because I took comparative anatomy to avoid having to take physics. But I doubt learning the... learning whatever it is you learn in physics would have been any more practical than what I learned gutting poor little Wilbur. Although I gotta say, I had a lot more fun hacking up the poor little guy than I probably should have.
I wonder whether pre-college education in general could be a tiny bit more practical and less... eggheady?

Edit: I just read an online synopsis of David Copperfield. STILL doesn't ring a single bell. Though I have always found Dickens' sense of humor to be rather opaque. 


VEG said...

I couldn't agree more, it's pretty amazing the powers that be haven't noticed this!

Now if just one child (or adult!) could learn that "it's" means "IT IS" and when it doesn't, the word is "its" with no apostrophe, I'd be a much calmer person.

Bonnie Jacobs said...

Hey, Vegetable Assassin, yesterday I was out with a friend (a former English teacher) when we saw "its" with no apostrophe used correctly. We were so astounded that we had to joke about it.

Brigid, I re-read Strunk and White a few months ago. Have you read William Zinsser's On Writing Well? I wrote about these two books, with a link to another blogger's post about Strunk and White, here:

By the way, I think our "health insurance explanation of benefits statements" are designed to befuddle us. That's so their lawyers can find a way to weasel out of any situation that looks like it might be expensive to the insurance companies. Do I sound cynical? Moi?

Bonnie Jacobs said...

Hey, Brigid, look what I just ran across:

Feds must stop writing gibberish under new law

Anonymous said...

David Copperfield was semi-autobiographical about Dickens' life.

As for Strunk & White, well, it's useful and necessary, but I reach for the CMS first.

Brigid Daull Brockway said...

Bonnie, I love Zinsser. He's part of the holy trinity I always impose upon people who tell me they want to write: On Writing Well by Zinsser, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, and of course, Strunk and White.