The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English

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The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English, by Bill Walsh. (McGraw-Hill, 2004. 238 pp. ISBN 0071422684, US$14.95).

It was a tall order for Bill Walsh to improve on Lapsing into a Comma. Not the book itself--which was fine but far from exhaustive--it was that winsome title that seemed to defy a worthy pun for a sequel. But the title of his second book succeeds in two ways. First, while Lapsing focused on finer points of journalistic style for fellow copy editors (Walsh is the copy chief for national news at the Washington Post), Elephants is hunting big game, or, as Walsh puts it, "the major usage points that educated people sometimes disagree about (or should that be about which educated people sometimes disagree?)."

Even better, the title is a play on what many English teachers regard as the owner's manual for the English language: Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. "Elephants" suggests the pachydermal bearing with which Strunk and White's book looms over the shoulders of English 101 students, sometimes rendering their writing more rote than written. Walsh challenges the notion that the elephants of Elements are huge, immovable objects. He initially claims that Elements' argument against beginning a sentence with However is about the only one he finds "unconvincing." However, he ends up inveighing against various Strunk and White prohibitions, many in his chapter "Lies Your English Teacher Told You." "I attach a big asterisk to the 'Omit needless words' credo from the original Elements", Walsh says. "I like a little writing with nay writing," so long as it isn't "bright-and-breezy-magaziney."

Then there's the split infinitive, the cardinal sin everyone loves to really hate. Trying too hard to keep an infinitive intact can lead to sentences like this one in a 2003 wire story: "Secretary of State Colin Powell said Iraq failed totally to account for its weapons of mass destruction." (Powell was saying Iraq's accounting was incomplete.) Move totally too far afield, Walsh says, "and the sentence sounds like the work of a thirteen-year-old Valley girl ('Iraq, like, totally failed to account for the weapons!')." Walsh also says that notre is sounds "stilted," as does it is hoped that for hopefully, and recommends a response to complaints about your sentence fragments: "So what?"

So although Walsh identifies himself as a curmudgeon, you might call his approach compassionate prescriptivism, or at least flexible fussiness. And while many of his examples come from journalism, he has good advice for anyone looking to stay out of the SIC! …


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