Approach the bench

June 24, 2013|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

The Hon. Richard G. Kopf, a judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, has produced a set of rules for legal writing, from which the Gillette-Torvik Blog quotes Rule 9:

"Burn anything that Bryan Garner has written. He really knows his stuff, but Strunk and White's The Elements of Style said it all."

No doubt the judge was being facetious (can you be sure?), but however lightly intended, this fragment of Strunk-and-White worship reflects a widespread attitude among people who should know better.

I'm not as choleric as Geoffrey Pullum (whose blast against The Elements of Style, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2009 on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of publication of the Little Book, is in fine style), but Strunk and White is not an altar at which I worship.

I enjoyed the book well enough when I first read it, in 1969 in Miss Lynda McKee's senior English class at Fleming County High School.* But at eighteen, I had already done a fair amount of writing, some of it published in the local weekly newspaper, and I had an intimation then of something that I have come to see clearly: The Elements of Style, to the extent that it is at all helpful, assists people who already know something about writing. It is not much help for tyros.

"Use the active voice" is good enough advice as far as it goes, but many S&W acolytes have carried it to the extreme of shunning the passive voice altogether, even when it is preferable, and including in their shunnings constructions with forms of to be that are not even passives. The famous "omit needless words" principle is good advice, if you already have the judgment to determine which words are necessary for your purpose and which are not.

Similarly, "do not affect a breezy manner,"** "avoid fancy words," and "prefer the standard to the offbeat" aren't much help unless you can determine the proper balance between subject, purpose, occasion, and audience. The advice is too general. Oh, and there's also "be clear." Yeah, do that.

Part of the book's enduring popularity rises from E.B. White's endearing prose. For the rest, there's the appeal of those catchy little rules. Easy to remember. Not so easy to apply.

If you were to take Judge Kopf's little joke seriously, and discard the weight and substance of Garner's Modern American Usage or any other reliable guide to writing and usage for the flimsiness of The Elements of Style, you would be a prize fool.

* I still have the copy, the 1962 paperback edition of the 1959 edition. The Little Book has since been revised, not to advantage. I believe the current version includes the hopefully fetish.

**D'you think Judge Kopf was affecting a breezy manner?

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