August 12, 2004


Here's an interesting article I found via (I'm on their maillist, a hot tip for you):

The Strunk-and-White people privilege readers, viewing them as delicate invalids, likely to scurry off to their bedchambers when faced with any sentence diverging in the slightest from the plain style. (Using another metaphor, White wrote that his old teacher Strunk "felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, a man floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get his man on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope.") At the other extreme, the Goldberg group coddles the writer the way an overindulgent parent would a sensitive child: Are you sure you've shared everything that's on your mind or in your heart?

Like almost everything else, these two camps and their tussle have historical roots. Since ancient Greece, people interested in language have argued whether it should be primarily a means of expression (Gorgias, the original sophist) or of communicating truth (Socrates and Plato, the Strunk and White of their time). The first camp favors eloquence and doubts the existence of external "reality"; the second favors clarity and has few doubts about anything. Dominance has tended to swing back and forth between the two, like a pendulum. (Very) broadly speaking, Camp One held sway in the Renaissance and Camp Two in the 18th century. Romanticism shoved the pendulum all the way back, with a new wrinkle articulated by Comte de Buffon in 1753: "Style is the man himself." That was probably the first and certainly the most striking articulation of the Charlie Parker/Julia Child notion of style as individual expression and revelation. Such 19th-century writers as Gustave Flaubert, Walter Pater, and Walt Whitman took the idea to extremes, putting forth style as a unique, supreme, and sometimes mystical expression of soul.

The more things change...

Posted by Dennis at August 12, 2004 2:26 AM

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