Do(es) Any of Us Care? Different Takes on Grammar

April 30, 2012

Recently I ordered a new edition of a title that bids “adios” to Strunk and White (see below).  Some daring iconoclasts, including prominent linguists, have come out swinging over the years against The Elements of Style, the venerable grammar authority that has browbeat generations of students into awkward contortions to avoid passive voice or prepositional sentence endings, among many other supposed sins, in formal writing.  For a particularly harsh critique of Elements, see this 2009 article from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Another Strunk and White critic is linguist Daniel Everett, whose Language : The Cultural Tool also came out this year.  Everett lived for decades studying the Piraha language of a remote Amazonian tribe in Brazil.  The book is fascinating for what Everett discovered about how Piraha language is closely tied to their particular way of life and shows surprising features.  For one thing, there are no words whatsoever for numbers (birth order of siblings is described analogously to body parts), and color words are restricted to light and dark, basically.  Everett dismisses as unscientific Strunk and White’s “prescriptive” approach to grammar.  When I read this expert opinion and the Chronicle of Higher Education article, I got a rebellious tingle, having been thoroughly indoctrinated in Strunk and White as a child.  Of course for the true believers, we will continue to have multiple copies of The Elements of Style as well.

Other recent grammar and language titles:

American Heritage Student Grammar Dictionary.

The all-new American Heritage® Student Grammar Dictionary presents 250 of the most useful terms and concepts of grammar, clearly and precisely defined for students in grades six and up. This resource goes well beyond grammar basics to cover more advanced concepts, making it useful for students as they progress from middle school to high school. Each entry includes engaging and varied example sentences showing how grammatical concepts play out in English writing. More than 70 charming cartoon illustrations enliven the text and supplement the example sentences with amusing exchanges between recurring characters. Most entries contain special features, including tips for dictionary use, remarks on the distinction between formal and colloquial English, and cautions about common errors. Similar and related terms are cross-referenced to each other, so that no entry stands alone but each fits into the larger pattern of English grammar. This easy-to-use dictionary is a unique, accessible, and entertaining resource for a subject that is a perennial anxiety provoker for students as well as their parents.

Everett, Daniel.  Language : The Cultural Tool.

A bold and provocative study that presents language not as an innate component of the brain-as most linguists do-but as an essential tool unique to each culture worldwide.   For years, the prevailing opinion among academics has been that language is embedded in our genes, existing as an innate and instinctual part of us. But linguist Daniel Everett argues that, like other toCover imageols, language was invented by humans and can be reinvented or lost. He shows how the evolution of different language forms-that is, different grammar-reflects how language is influenced by human societies and experiences, and how it expresses their great variety.   For example, the Amazonian Pirahã put words together in ways that violate our long-held under-standing of how language works, and Pirahã grammar expresses complex ideas very differently than English grammar does. Drawing on the Wari’ language of Brazil, Everett explains that speakers of all languages, in constructing their stories, omit things that all members of the culture understand. In addition, Everett discusses how some cultures can get by without words for numbers or counting, without verbs for “to say” or “to give,” illustrating how the very nature of what’s important in a language is culturally determined.   Combining anthropology, primatology, computer science, philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and his own pioneering-and adventurous-research with the Amazonian Pirahã, and using insights from many different languages and cultures, Everett gives us an unprecedented elucidation of this society-defined nature of language. In doing so, he also gives us a new understanding of how we think and who we are.


Hoffman, Gary.  Adios, Strunk and White : A Handbook for the New Academic Essay. 4th ed.

McFarland Publisher’s Description:  Enjoy the writing tools strong writers know about but never talk about.  Adios is for processional writers, college students, professors, K-12 teachers, and self-taught writers.  Learn style for business, academic, scientific, and creative writing through concepts that appeal to our rhythmic, spatial, and playful sensibilities.  Expand writing beyond the five-paragraph, academic word-box.  Develop a distinct voice required by major university application forms and journal editors.  Merge style with critical thinking, logic, and research.  Everything is explained with verve.  The Hoffmans practice what they preach.


Posted by Darren




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