- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2011

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. He doesn’t like Strunk and White’s rules for good writing, which he regards as picayune and elementary. He has a new book out, “How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One.” (But he likes Charles Portis and “True Grit,” which certainly would have delighted Strunk and White.)

Strunk and White offend certain professors because their “brief for brevity,” as one critic calls it, teaches in 43 brief pages what learned professors often fail to do in two semesters. Mr. Fish’s scorn for Strunk, White and “Elements of Style” follows an attack by Geoffrey K. Pullum, a professor of linguistics and English at the University of Edinburgh.

Mr. Pullum disdains the celebration of 50 years “of the overopinionated and underinformed angst. I’ve spent too much of my scholarly life studying English grammar in a serious way. English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can’t even tell when they’ve broken their own misbegotten rules.”

It’s the simplicity and utility of “the little book” that offend the professors, Strunk and White’s preference for the standard over the offbeat. “Vigorous writing is concise,” they wrote. “When a sentence is made stronger it usually becomes shorter.” And this: “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome and sometimes nauseating.” Strunk and White hardly set out to produce an F. Scott Fitzgerald, a John Updike or a Charles Portis, but to teach college students (and others who want to tap into the occasional magic of the written word) how to express themselves effectively. Somewhere an aspiring author of a computer manual might learn a thing or two. The reader, they wrote, is usually lost in a jungle of badly written prose and appreciates all the help he can get.

Strunk and White appreciated the unexpected magic of words, too. Armed with a few rules for good writing and elevated by high purpose, White wrote in his updating of Strunk’s classic, the writer might pattern himself on the cow in the Robert Louis Stevenson rhyme. “This friendly and commendable animal, you may recall, was ‘blown about by all the winds that pass/and wet with all the showers.’ Stevenson, working in a plainer style, said it with felicity, and suddenly one cow, out of so many, received the gift of immortality.”

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.