Brno, Czech Republic — Many months ago I accepted an invitation to give a conference plenary here in central Czechia. (The Czech Republic does have an approved one-word name. People don’t seem to use it much, but I do.) The conference has a discourse-studies theme, and discourse isn’t my usual bag, but I accepted because I was sure that by the time the conference started I would have come up with a suitable talk to give (the usual plenary-invitation gamble). I did not expect shifting fashions in 20th-century architecture to have any relevance to my topic (I knew virtually nothing about architecture). I certainly did not expect a world-famous building in this pleasant Czech city to become relevant. But the serendipitous connections did, to my surprise, emerge.
I had noticed curious generalizations about the constructions that style and usage guides seem to feel impelled to warn us against. They are unremittingly hostile to the passive; some of them deprecate existential clauses (William Strunk looks askance on the use of “some such perfunctory expression as there is”); and they have a principled antipathy to separating constituents that are in a syntactic relationship (“Keep related words together,” says Strunk).
The idea seems to be, in short, that most of the preposing and postposing and information-structuring possibilities of English — the discourse-sensitive constructions dealt with in Chapter 16 of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language — are to be shunned. Or at the very least, treated with great caution, like drugs or weapons (keep out of the reach of children). They take a do-not-try-this-at-home attitude to such syntactic devices. Wielded by an expert they can perhaps be effective in some cases, but the best advice for you is not to risk using them at all.
A remarkable 2005 Language Log post by Mark Liberman, “The evolution of disornamentation,” led me to reread an impressive Blowhards post by Francis Morrone entitled “The Word (and World) Made Flesch” (2004).
Morrone connects Flesch-Kincaid “readability” measurement and The Elements of Style to the architecture of Vienna and New York. Referring to the clean, functional lines favored by Victor Gruen (who essentially invented the modern American mall) and especially the simplicity-advocating Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Morrone observed that “Flesch and Strunk and White stripped inessential ornaments from prose as surely as Mies or Victor Gruen stripped them from buildings.”
Liberman objects that this doesn’t apply to the case of Strunk’s rule about the placement of however, which implies we should take as our role model the tortuously elaborate prose of Henry James rather than the plain and simple writing of Mark Twain. But I’m not sure that positioning however after the subject should count as decorative: Setting aside Twain, my preliminary investigations revealed that in several works of Strunk’s day, that position was completely dominant, and clause-initial however never appeared at all.
I think there are signs of a trend in Strunk and other champions of plain and simple prose style that almost allies them with Adolf Loos’s ridiculous rant about ornament being tantamount to crime.
Like many other American writers on prose style in the 20th century, Strunk seems to favor prose with no ornamental flourishes, stylistic resequencings, or special information-packaging devices (such as passives and existentials) allowing material newly introduced into the discourse to be positioned late in a clause, or allowing already-given information to be positioned near the beginning. This does perhaps suggest that his taste in architecture might not have leaned toward the art-deco Chrysler building (at right, above) but rather toward
Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building (at right, below).
And we may conjecture that Strunk would not have praised writing reminiscent of Otto Wagner’s spectacularly ornate
Länderbank Building (at left; I had the privilege of exploring it when I passed through Vienna during Open House Vienna last weekend on my way to Brno). His taste might have inclined more to Mies van der Rohe’s celebrated Villa Tugendhat (see the picture at the top of this post).
If you like the clean, functional lines of the Villa Tugendhat or the Seagram Building, perhaps you will find yourself siding with Strunk about prose. Not me: I think that if you deny yourselves the stylistic resources of the Chapter 16 constructions, you will be in danger of writing prose that is as dull as dishwater.
But it certainly is your free choice. The key thing about the Chapter 16 constructions is that they are options, not edicts.