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Review of Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace By Joseph Williams

The genre of stylebooks and handbooks has long been dominated by a few big names like Strunk and White, along with an endless supply of metoo-ers. Their utility aside, these books are most remarkable for their sameness, and their hesitance to deviate from the established traditions. Joseph Williams’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace—now in its tenth edition—stands out for its thoughtfulness and for its innovation.[1][2]

Style was the main text chosen for an advanced editing course that I took a decade ago, and I’m glad it was. I’ve heard my share of vague and prescriptive advice on writing—avoid the passive, be succinct, revise often—but Style gave me a more tangible set of practical tools to parse prose and rework syntax towards, as he calls it, “clarity and grace.” Williams’s program has since become second nature to me and it has sharpened my writing and my editing more than all the other books on the topic combined.

In this genre, many handbooks contain different permutations of the same advice. Some of this advice Williams has included, including eliminating wordiness and putting emphasis at the ends of sentences. But while Williams starts with the tried-and-true advice, I was struck by how much of what Williams advises was unusually specific and amazingly fresh.

Williams’s program is guided by two main principles: if your syntax follows a prototypical structure—one that’s simple to parse—and if make the syntax of your sentences mirror the semantics of your message, then your prose are made immensely clearer. Your reader skips the mental gymnastics required to interpret turgid prose.

In practice, this equates to a handful of rules of thumb. Avoid nominalizations, which are nouns derived from verbs, often ending in suffixes such as –tion and –ing. Use verbs to describe actions. Use nouns to describe characters. So far, this will change “our analysis of the company’s performance” to the more straightforward “we analyzed how the company performed.” He adds: put the topic, or something that refers back to prior discourse at the beginning of the sentence. Put the grammatical subject, verb, and object(s) as close to the beginning of the sentence as possible, with minimal interruptions between. Then pile everything else afterwards. At times I felt like this could be condensed into a few paragraphs, but of course, 300 pages makes this book a more substantial package, and it allows space for illustrative examples and practice exercises.

Williams doesn’t give advice in bullet-pointed directives or in disconnected bits and pieces; he builds an editing system that meshes as a unified whole. Each principle is fleshed out in an entire chapter, complete with practice exercises. In a way, it’s like learning to write in a foreign language (minus the foreign vocabulary): you learn how to express yourself in a new syntax that is contrary to the ways that many of us naturally write. Each of the chapters is presented as a lesson that builds on the previous. What you learn is an interconnected system of editing, a new way to dissect and reassemble sentences.

I especially want to emphasize how Williams does in this book four things that set him apart from just about every other writing guru out there:

1. He narrows the scope of his book to sentence-level revisions of nonfiction. Many others default into trying to encompass every phase the writing process of all genres. By setting his scope so narrow, Williams can delve into the excruciating details of the rhetoric of the sentence. His program can truly help you perfect one small part of your writing; just don’t expect this book to teach you how to do research or how to organize your paper.

2. He makes grammar useful. I have seriously wondered whether students who learn grammar learn to do anything practical besides parsing sentences and nitpicking “mistakes.” Many studies show it’s not helpful to better writing, but that may be because grammar is traditionally taught as a simplistic list of mechanical no-no’s. Williams differs in that he treats grammar as a descriptive nomenclature that allows editors to more consciously manipulate a sentence’s syntax in ways that mirror its semantics.

3. He rejects rigid prescriptivism, and urges that “[t]he alternative to blind obedience is selective observance.” Many other writing handbooks, such as Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, never make this distinction, so they freely mix their good advice with longstanding myths about not splitting infinitives and other silliness. That sort of advice helps your writing about as much as avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk helps your health.

4. He draws on linguistic research. Writing handbooks traditionally come from writers in the humanities, writers who have little time for or faith in empirical research. Williams breaks from tradition as he informs his text with Eleanor Rosch’s research in Prototype Semantics. The disciplines of Linguistics and Writing come together, creating very useful advice for writers.

Style is not a book for beginners. If you haven’t become comfortable with advanced writing, this book won’t help much. Also, it helps to already be familiar enough with traditional grammatical terminology that you can parse a sentence into its constituents. Although Williams does briefly review traditional grammar, you will get overwhelmed if you have to learn both the grammar terms and a style lesson simultaneously. As a college teacher, I wouldn’t recommend assigning this book in any class before second-year composition.

The biggest problem with this book is that it still remains such a secret.


[1] This review was originally written in 2004 in response to the sixth version of the book. Since then, the book has changed in small ways, and I’ve updated the review in small ways. Williams died in 2008, and Gregory G. Columb is now listed as a co-author.

[2] Full-disclosure: As a writing teacher, I have received free evaluation copies of textbooks from the publisher of this book, Pearson-Longman. I received no compensation in exchange for this review. In fact, the original version of this review was written half a decade before the publisher sent me free evaluation copies.

Hartwell’s Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar: 25 years later.

April 12, 2012 1 comment

Patrick Hartwell’s 1985 article Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar may well be the most cited article in grammar pedagogy in the teaching of writing. It’s been a quarter century since its publication, which is a good point to re-assess it. Overall, it’s a nuanced and thoughtful introduction to issues teachers need to consider when teaching grammar, but its sweeping, unwarranted conclusion needs to be re-considered.

Drawing a broad collection of research, Hartwell addresses proper place of teaching grammar in the English classroom. First he summarizes the endless skirmishes between those who believe grammar instruction is pointless and those who believe it’s crucial. Next he notes that both sides confound the different senses of the term grammar, so he defines 5 different types of grammar:

  1. The subconscious knowledge of natural language in the minds of all native speakers.
  2. The empirical research that formally describes grammar 1.
  3. Rules of linguistic etiquette.
  4. The instructive grammars used in schoolbooks.
  5. Descriptive grammars designed to enhance rhetorical style.

Hartwell’s precision is refreshing, and one of his most lasting contributions to the field has been to call our attention to the ambiguity underlying the term “grammar.” Too often, when English instructors make a pedagogical claim about “grammar,” they’re being imprecise about what sense they’re using the term. I once observed on a listserv how almost every discussion of grammar devolved into acrimony because the participants were each talking about something different. But a Christensen-style sentence-combining pedagogy has nothing in common with a pedagogy that requires students to memorize all the parts of speech and diagram sentences like in Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog.

In practice, however, there’s no clear distinction between Hartwell’s grammars 3, 4, and 5. They’re all versions of prescriptive grammar. Many writing handbooks are a grab-bag of “rules” that appeal to all three. (Some even appeal to grammar 2, but any rule that must be explicitly taught to native speakers cannot be grammar 2.)

Teaching Grammars 2 and 4 is largely useless, Hartwell argues. He rightly criticizes grammar 4 because it is, in most instantiations, simplistic and wildly inaccurate when compared to the reality of grammar 1 or standard written English, and therefore its mechanistic instructions are useless except as heuristics. He also should emphasize, as Mike Rose has in Lives on The Boundary, that it breeds insecurity. As for Grammar 2, Hartwell correctly notes that that were it useful, then linguists would be our best writers. They aren’t. Hartwell’s principle argument is that grammar 2 rules are so complex that any writer who explicitly tries to reason through them will be hamstrung. He also cites experiments into teaching writers a simple grammar 2 for an artificial language, research which is at best tangentially relevant to natural language. Hartwell does suggest that carefully targeted instruction of grammar 2 may benefit some English language learners. What about Grammar 3? Hartwell doesn’t have much to say here.

As for Grammar 5, Hartwell rightly sees it as useful to some writers, though his conclusion isn’t founded on empirical data. He believes this grammar provides a common vocabulary with which some, but not all, writers and teachers can more consciously hone the style of their prose. The key, I believe, is that grammar 5 is best suited for advanced writers, who won’t misinterpret it as something more like grammar 3 or 4.

At the end of the article Hartwell reviews a decades-long history of research into the value of what he calls “formal grammar instruction.” Here, it’s worrisome that the same person who was earlier calling us to be very careful about what we mean by “grammar” has become so sloppy about what he’s referring to.

Hartwell’s sloppiness here allows him to end the essay with a sweeping condemnation of grammar teaching which is out of scale with the nuance of all the rest of his essay. Overall, Hartwell suggests that such instruction does not help students, and that it’s time for pedagogical researchers to turn their attention to more interesting areas of inquiry. He suggests that teachers use grammar as a way to blatantly assert power over their students.

Twenty-five years later, Hartwell’s closing words have proven to have an enduring influence. With a few small exceptions, composition scholarship has largely abandoned any sort of rigorous inquiry into how to teach grammar. To raise the issue, in some quarters, is to out yourself as an oppressor. This creates a shocking disconnect between pedagogical research and actual teachers’ practice. Independent of what the researchers are doing, most writing teachers are teaching some form of grammar in their classroom (and many are mandated to).

When someone like Hartwell says that teachers don’t need any scholarship into grammar instruction, are they assuming that students will learn all they need through 100% whole-language instruction? My reaction is to ask: what students are you teaching? Yes, that’s probably true for advanced students at selective universities, but what about community college students at the basic or developmental level? Has Hartwell ever gotten a student essay that’s two pages without a single period or ending punctuation? I have.