A blog reader sent me a news clipping from the October 14, 2014 edition of the Wall Street Journal. The article reviews two books where the authors take differing positions on the importance of grammar and style. (“Book Review: ‘Gwynne’s Grammar’ N.M. Gwynne & ‘The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker” by Joseph Epstein, The Wall Street Journal, 10/14/2014. Originally published electronically 9/26/14.)
According to writer, Joseph Epstein, Gwynne’s Grammar takes a strict, authoritarian attitude toward grammar and writing. In fact, Gwynne goes so far as to dictate the placement of multiple adjectives in a sentence. Adjectives of opinion come before those of size. Size comes before descriptions of age. Age trumps origin, and if all this information is too much for our small brains, Gwynne provides an example. “The book your are holding is therefore a nice little just-published oblong-shaped attractively colored much needed hardcover textbook.”
Steven Pinker’s book on language and grammar takes a more relaxed view. He suggests his readers think of grammar as “the original sharing app.” If it helps us understand, great. If it doesn’t, grammar should get out of the way. Gwynne’s adjective sequencing, I’m guessing, would give Pinker the shivers. Above all, Pinker wishes to eliminate the stilted writing that comes when language is straight-jacketed by a surfeit of rules, the kind of entangling that makes academic writing so deadly. “The curse of knowledge,” he writes, “is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.” Click here
Of course the worst application of good grammar is when it facilitates bad conduct — the superior, smug “gotcha” mentality of those who flaunt a rather dubious superiority. As for style and meaning, I prefer the advice the March Hare gave to Alice in Wonderland. It’s best to say what you mean and mean what you say, the sequence of adjectives being irrelevant. There are times when correct grammar is crucial, of course, but not many. Would the world fall apart, for example, if Tweedle Dum greeted his brother with an, “It’s me,” and Tweedle Dee replied, “Oh good. It’s I, too”?
I think not. But that’s me. Or is it ‘that’s I”?