The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly
Denver Journal Book Review by Denver Seminary Professor Douglas Groothuis
Charles Harrington Elster, The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010. ISBN-10: 0312613008; ISBN-13: 978-0312613006. 291 pages. Paperback. $14.99.
For many years, I have taught an enjoyable and stimulating class at Denver Seminary called Writing for Publication. In 2011, we used Accidents of Style as one of our texts. Our seminary students are taught to develop, defend, and apply the truth of the Christian worldview to the whole of life, under the Lordship of Christ, as Francis Schaeffer said. When I teach students philosophy, apologetics, and social criticism, I exhort them to make known what they are learning—to “take it to the streets” to expand the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33; 28:18-20). Writing is essential in this mission of God, although it is falling on hard and bitter times, it seems—and for many reasons. This must be corrected, not merely for the sake of grammatical fussiness, but for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17). Let me explain how this book—which makes no confession of Christian faith—can advance this incomparable end.
“In the beginning was the Word,” John’s Gospel affirms in his titantically important prologue. This one-and-only Word (Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity) is infinite-personal, relational, and rational. The Word incarnated in order to make the father known (1:18; see also). The author of this Gospel continues that mission in his own inspired writing, saying:
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name—John 20:30.
Listen also to the peerless writer of Ecclesiastes on writing:
Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.
The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.
Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body (Ecclesiastes 12:9-12).
Luke, the author of Luke and Acts, explains something of his theology of writing in his famous prologue to Luke.
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught (Luke 1:3-4).
Much more could be said on this topic, but these passages (and many others) enjoin us to write well by being wise, God-centered, intelligent, orderly, and diligent. This requires that we become intellectually virtuous in and through our writing. Important knowledge must be meaningfully conveyed to the church and the world, which perishes without it (Hosea 4:6; 2 Timothy 3:7). As Ecclesiastes cautions, this is not easy; it requires discipline and even suffering (as any writer of a substantial book can testify). Yet suffering wisely-born is our calling in the Christ, who warned that we could only be his disciple by denying ourselves, taking up our cross daily, and following him (Luke 9). Paul reiterates this imperative of discipleship with a strong (and even off-putting) metaphor: “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:27; see also the New Living Bible paraphrase of this verse). Apparently, Paul took sanctification rather seriously.
Because of this biblical teaching, Christ-followers should develop their communication skills to the utmost. Yes, some cultures are illiterate or pre-literate; regenerate souls can serve God there as well. But Western culture, while once highly literate, is, in many ways, now post-literate. Words are everywhere, but are seldom taken seriously through clear, thoughtful, and pertinent writing. Flashing, moving images usually trump the written word. (See Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word [Eerdmans, 1985].) The Internet has contributed to this malady significantly, since anyone on-line can write just about anything, with little to no editing. One can also find fine prose on-line, but the signal-to-noise ratio is rather poor, to put it charitably.
Christians, of all people, should be souls who care for, worry about, and make godly use of writing. Excellent and fastidious books such as The Accidents of Style encourage us to tread this narrow path, shunned by so many. To that end, any serious book on style, grammar, and punctuation well serves the Christian’s cause. (As a young Christian, my reading books of this sort, such as Strictly Speaking: Will America be the Death of English?, by journalist Edwin Newman (d. 2010), instilled this value in me.) While many become lazy and self-centered in their writing (and speaking), Christians should honor the Word in their written and spoken words. As Jesus said, “For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Matthew 12:37, KJV). In Love Your God With all Your Mind (NavPress, 2012; second edition), philosopher, J.P. Moreland argues that attention to grammar is an essential virtue in the Christian life.
The devaluation of grammar correlates closely with a devaluation of the mind, truth, and thought. When a main purpose of a language is the careful, precise expression of thought, grammar and syntax become critical because they make such expression of thought possible.
If we Christians are to develop our minds, we must take greater care to improve our syntax and grammar, and we must expect this from each other. From years of experience grading student papers, I can tell you that if a student’s grammar is poor, he or she has a difficult time developing a coherent line of thought clearly and carefully.
As a fellow professor, I can attest to this as well. The answer to the problem is to learn to submit to the disciplines of normative language usage. All written language is rooted in tradition and functions according to articulable rules. But, sadly, today many are more concerned to express opinions recklessly and emotively than to state positions clearly and grammatically, let alone to develop an individual manner in writing and speaking.
In order to submit to the sanctions of language, we need to consult experts, not celebrities. Charles Harrington Elster (quite a dignified name) is one such expert, a very fussy and funny fellow, who is a wise guide to proper usage, who can sniff out a snafu of style a mile or two away. He is the author of Verbal Advantage and many other books and has written for publications such as The New York Times Magazine and The Boston Globe. This delightful book is a tonic to the stylistic turpitude and torpor that engulfs and afflicts us. He writes of no less than 350 “accidents of style,” many of which are sadly but firmly embedded in our parlance. By spotting these errors, we can develop the art of avoiding them. (If reading the book in a few days or weeks seems too daunting, and depressing, then read one error per day for a year.) The same principle applies in informal logic. By learning the dozen or so common logical fallacies (such as begging the question, false dichotomy, argumentum ad hominem, and so on), we can detect them and avoid using them ourselves. This principle of mastering error to maintain truth is pertinent to biblical interpretation as well. Consider D.A. Carson’s book, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Baker, 1996), and James Sire’s, Scripture Twisting: Twenty Ways Cults Misinterpret the Bible (InterVarsity, 1980).
But back to Elster. For example, do you know the difference between “prone” and “supine”? Being prone means to be on one’s back; being supine means to lie on one’s face. Can you distinguish between “infer” and “imply”? These distinctions matter, since they sharpen our sense of description and truth. As R.J. Rushdoony once wrote concerning theological creeds, “Truth is exact and precise.” If so, our language (creedal or otherwise) should comport with proper usage so that reality has a chance of being adequately presented. When Paul was teaching on the intelligibility of worship in the early church, he emphasized clarity. We may apply this principle more broadly to writing and speaking in other contexts as well.
Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air (1 Corinthians 14:8-9).
Elster writes not simply as a pedant who wants to punish pedestrian blunders, but as one who loves language and fears its demise. Consider his quote from Jacques Barzun’s book, A Word or Two Before You Go, written on the frontispiece:
It is not, of course, any single violation of meaning or idiom, however frequent, that harms the common property of language. If frequent, the error become general—becomes the language—in the traditional way of change. What does harm, now and hereafter, is the loss of the feeling for words, the disappearance of any instinct and any preferences about their formation and combination.
This is the miasma we must maneuver through today, with a strong stomach and a resolute will to stand up and stand out for the sake of truth. When we lose that “feeling for words”—that sense of subtle conscience that compels us to esteem highly grammar, semantics and syntax—we lose the ability to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), since we fail to love language enough to honor truth. Humility, a cardinal Christian virtue, submits to correction. Mr. Elster corrected me—a long-standing teacher, preacher, and professional author—many times, and I am better off for it, as are my students who read the book. You will be as well. Good writing is no accident; it depends on rooting out errors and by developing virtuous habits of the heart, mind, and pen—all for the dissemination of truth in a world too saturated with lies (John 8:44; 2 Corinthians 11:14; John 4:1-6).
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy