Breakfast Conversation?

Yesterday students talked about me at breakfast. It is a bit unnerving when a student enrolled in your online class comes into the bookshop and says “I was talking about you at breakfast.” Great. Now what did I do? Apparently the other student recommended he find out which book I’d suggested on writing essays and style during my summer course a couple of years ago. I was completely blank. I started in with Turabian, because I always recommend Turabian as a style guide, plus there are good tips on making arguments in the more recent editions. As we gazed at Turabian on the shelf, I spotted the little style guide I usually wave at my students because they’ve broken Rule #1. Aha! I picked up Strunk and White and said, “This is it.” My student promptly bought The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White and requested that I give him lots of feedback during the summer course as he wanted to learn to write well.

I also want to learn to write well. I should revisit Strunk and White. It is a handy little guide to expressing oneself clearly in English. I admit that I’m a bit fanatic about Rule #1 (how to make a singular noun possessive) because I’ve encountered many a graduate student who has no clue about using the possessive properly. I don’t mean the odd case like Charles’s dog (which is correct because Charles is singular and one makes a singular noun possessive by adding apostrophe s regardless of the last letter of the singular noun — Rule #1). I mean not using the possessive at all. Or using a possessive where a plural should be used. Apostrophes are often portents of grammatical catastrophes.

I think I’ve got Rule #1 in Strunk and White down. I should probably move on to Rule #2. Let’s see, Rule #2 … ah yes, the serial comma. Good old rule #2, also often neglected. “In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.” I opened the book, found the page, and made a note of the second rule.

I could go on to Rule #3, but will leave you to run and find your copy of The Elements of Style to remind yourself of the indefensible punctuation discussed under that head. What? You don’t have a copy of Strunk and White? What’s the world coming to??

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Breakfast Conversation?

  1. The Constant Reader
    • Excellent points, particularly on passive voice. I still think that grammar is so little taught that this small handbook helps some people realize that there are rules to be followed. I’ll have to re-read the book with this little tirade in mind. Do you have a preferred small style guide oh Constant Reader?

    • Neighbour

      Well, I’m gobsmacked! I *loved* The Elements of Style as a teen, and read it many times. I’ll never take the same joy in it, now.

      • The Constant Reader

        Proving once again that I’m a ruiner. Huzzah.

        As far as small style guides go, for punctuation-related questions I prefer Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves. It’s thoroughly British, of course, but I find that the bulk of it translates to Canadian usage with ease.

        As far as general style and grammar go, I think the best thing is for people to read books, well-written books, like fiends. It seems to me that style is easier absorbed than directly taught.

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