Good Writing Faces the Elements; Abbreviation Blizzard Buries Tradition in Electronic Age

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We're moving swiftly into postliterate America, and more's the pity. Many of us can't write a coherent, straightforward, easy-to-read sentence. Nobody but a tiger mother seems interested in teaching her cubs how to write clearly.

The ubiquitous e-mail message had just about done in the language, and then came texting and tweeting, with their abbreviations and inane speech conventions. OMG, soon we'll all have sore thumbs and speak only a version of pidgin.

Pidgin is OK if you're a backwoodsman in New Guinea come to town to buy tobacco and beans and neither you nor the storekeeper speaks the other's language, but it's not what parents send their kids to Harvard (or Southwest Missouri State) to learn. We're waking up to the hard fact that our kids are woefully deficient in math and science, and next must follow the realization that reading and good writing are necessary to learning math and science. Students in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Japan, whence come so much of our imported talent in the sciences, are far ahead of us already.

The race to the top starts with knowing where we stand and how high the bar is over which we need to jump, said Gary Phillips of the American Institutes for Research not long ago in a new report on international benchmarks in math. We are shooting for a B. Elementary school students in the top Asian nations typically scored a B or B-plus in science and math classes, as measured in a study by an organization called Trends in International Mathematics and Science. American kids in 49 states scored no higher than a cumulative C-plus. Only in Massachusetts did they score a B. Even that does not take into account the curse of grade inflation.

Fads rule in the academy, and the latest fad among English teachers - who ought to be concerned with teaching the clear writing necessary for dealing with math and science - is to belittle Strunk and White, the authors of a little book, The Elements of Style, that has been the best-known guide to effective writing - not necessarily literature - for nearly a century. This little book has sold 10 million copies. William Strunk Jr. was a professor of English at Cornell University at the time of World War I, and E.B. White, once his pupil, was for years a writer for New Yorker magazine. He was the author of the children's classic Charlotte's Web.

The latest skeptic of this guide to good writing is Stanley Fish, a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University and a columnist for the New York Times. …