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Strunk & White

The Elements of Style is an American English writing style guide in numerous editions. The original was composed by William Strunk Jr. in 1918, and published by Harcourt in 1920, comprising eight "elementary rules of usage", ten "elementary principles of composition", "a few matters of form", a list of 49 "words and expressions commonly misused", and a list of 57 "words often misspelled". E. B. White greatly enlarged and revised the book for publication by Macmillan in 1959. That was the first edition of the so-called "Strunk & White", which Time named in 2011 as one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923.[2]

History

Cornell University English professor William Strunk Jr. wrote The Elements of Style in 1918 and privately published it in 1919, for use at the university. (Harcourt republished it in 52-page format in 1920.)[1] He and editor Edward A. Tenney later revised it for publication as The Elements and Practice of Composition (1935). In 1957 the style guide reached the attention of E.B. White at The New Yorker. White had studied writing under Strunk in 1919 but had since forgotten "the little book" that he described as a "forty-three-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English". Weeks later, White wrote a feature story about Strunk’s devotion to lucid English prose.[3]

Macmillan and Company subsequently commissioned White to revise The Elements for a 1959 edition (Strunk had died in 1946). White’s expansion and modernization of Strunk and Tenney’s 1935 revised edition yielded the writing style manual informally known as "Strunk & White", the first edition of which sold about two million copies in 1959. More than ten million copies of three editions were later sold.[4] Mark Garvey relates the history of the book in Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (2009).[5]

Maira Kalman, who provided the illustrations for The Elements of Style Illustrated (2005, see below), asked Nico Muhly to compose a cantata based on the book. It was performed at the New York Public Library in October 2005.[6][7][8]

Content

In The Elements of Style (1918), William Strunk concentrated on specific questions of usage—and the cultivation of good writing—with the recommendation "Make every word tell"; hence the 17th principle of composition is the simple instruction: "Omit needless words." The book frames this within a triplet credited to an influential lecturer:

Omit needless words
Use active voice
Use parallel construction on concepts that are parallel [9]

The 1959 edition features White’s expansions of preliminary sections, the "Introduction" essay (derived from his magazine feature story about Prof. Strunk), and the concluding chapter, "An Approach to Style", a broader, prescriptive guide to writing in English. He also produced the second (1972) and third (1979) editions of The Elements of Style, by which time the book’s length had extended to 85 pages.

The third edition of The Elements of Style (1979) features 54 points: a list of common word-usage errors; 11 rules of punctuation and grammar; 11 principles of writing; 11 matters of form; and, in Chapter V, 21 reminders for better style. The final reminder, the 21st, "Prefer the standard to the offbeat", is thematically integral to the subject of The Elements of Style, yet does stand as a discrete essay about writing lucid prose.[3] To write well, White advises writers to have the proper mind-set, that they write to please themselves, and that they aim for "one moment of felicity", a phrase by Robert Louis Stevenson.[10] Thus Strunk’s 1918 recommendation:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.
— "Elementary Principles of Composition", The Elements of Style[11]

Strunk Jr. no longer has a comma in his name in the 1979 and later editions, due to the modernized style recommendation about punctuating such names.

The fourth edition of The Elements of Style (2000), published 54 years after Strunk’s death, omits his stylistic advice about masculine pronouns: "unless the antecedent is or must be feminine".[12] In its place, the following sentence has been added: "many writers find the use of the generic he or his to rename indefinite antecedents limiting or offensive." Further, the re-titled entry "They. He or She", in Chapter IV: Misused Words and Expressions, advises the writer to avoid an "unintentional emphasis on the masculine".[13][14]

Components new to the fourth edition include a foreword by Roger Angell, stepson of E. B. White, an afterword by the American cultural commentator Charles Osgood, a glossary, and an index. Five years later, the fourth edition text was re-published as The Elements of Style Illustrated (2005), with illustrations by the designer Maira Kalman. This edition excludes the afterword by Charles Osgood and restores the first edition chapter on spelling.

Reception

The Elements of Style was listed as one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923 by Time in its 2011 list.[2] Upon its release, Charles Poor, writing for The New York Times, called it "a splendid trophy for all who are interested in reading and writing."[15] American poet Dorothy Parker has, regarding the book, said:

If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.[16]

Criticism of Strunk & White has largely focused on claims that it has a prescriptivist nature, or that it has become a general anachronism in the face of modern English usage.

In criticizing The Elements of Style, Geoffrey Pullum, professor of linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, and co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), said that:

The book's toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules ... It's sad. Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write however or than me or was or which, but can't tell you why.[17]

Pullum has argued, for example, that the authors misunderstood what constitutes the passive voice, and he criticized their proscription of established and unproblematic English usages, such as the split infinitive and the use of which in a restrictive relative clause.[17] On Language Log, a blog about language written by linguists, he further criticized The Elements of Style for promoting linguistic prescriptivism and hypercorrection among Anglophones, and called it "the book that ate America’s brain".[18]

The Boston Globe’s review described The Elements of Style Illustrated (2005), with illustrations by Maira Kalman, as an "aging zombie of a book …​ a hodgepodge, its now-antiquated pet peeves jostling for space with 1970s taboos and 1990s computer advice".[19]

In On Writing (2000, p. 11), Stephen King writes: "There is little or no detectable bullshit in that book. (Of course, it’s short; at eighty-five pages it’s much shorter than this one.) I’ll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style. Rule 17 in the chapter titled Principles of Composition is 'Omit needless words.' I will try to do that here."

In 2011, Tim Skern remarked (perhaps equivocally) that The Elements of Style "remains the best book available on writing good English".[20]

In 2013, Nevile Gwynne reproduced The Elements of Style in his work Gwynne’s Grammar. Britt Peterson of the Boston Globe wrote that it was a "curious addition".[21]

In 2016, the Open Syllabus Project [22] lists The Elements of Style as the most frequently assigned text in US academic syllabuses, based on an analysis of 933,635 texts appearing in over 1 million syllabuses.[23]

Table of Contents

FOREWORD ix

INTRODUCTION xiii

I. ELEMENTARY RULES OF USAGE 1

  1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding 's . 1

  2. In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last. 2

  3. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas. 2

  4. Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause. 5

  5. Do not join independent clauses with a comma. 5

  6. Do not break sentences in two. 7

  7. Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation. 7

  8. Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary. 9

  9. The number of the subject determines the number of the verb. 9

  10. Use the proper case of pronoun. 11

  11. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject. 13

II. ELEMENTARY PRINCIPLES OF COMPOSITION 15

  1. Choose a suitable design and hold to it. 15

  2. Make the paragraph the unit of composition. 15

  3. Use the active voice. 18

  4. Put statements in positive form. 19

  5. Use definite, specific, concrete language. 21

  6. Omit needless words. 23

  7. Avoid a succession of loose sentences. 25

  8. Express coordinate ideas in similar form. 26

  9. Keep related words together. 28

  10. In summaries, keep to one tense. 31

  11. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end. 32

III. A FEW MATTERS OF FORM 34

IV. WORDS AND EXPRESSIONS COMMONLY MISUSED 39

V. AN APPROACH TO STYLE (With a List of Reminders) 66

  1. Place yourself in the background. 70

  2. Write in a way that comes naturally. 70

  3. Work from a suitable design. 70

  4. Write with nouns and verbs. 71

  5. Revise and rewrite. 72

  6. Do not overwrite. 72

  7. Do not overstate. 73

  8. Avoid the use of qualifiers. 73

  9. Do not affect a breezy manner. 73

  10. Use orthodox spelling. 74

  11. Do not explain too much. 75

  12. Do not construct awkward adverbs. 75

  13. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking. 76

  14. Avoid fancy words. 76

  15. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good. 78

  16. Be clear. 79

  17. Do not inject opinion. 79

  18. Use figures of speech sparingly. 80

  19. Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity. 80

  20. Avoid foreign languages. 81

  21. Prefer the standard to the offbeat. 81

AFTERWORD 87

GLOSSARY 89

INDEX 97

AMA Manual of Style

AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors is the style guide of the American Medical Association. It is written by the editors of JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) and the Archives journals and is most recently published by Oxford University Press.

  • Section 1. Preparing an Article for Publication

    1. Types of Articles

    2. Manuscript Preparation

    3. References

    4. Visual Presentation of Data

    5. Ethical and Legal Considerations

    6. Editorial Assessment and Processing.

  • Section 2. Style

    1. Grammar,

    2. Punctuation,

    3. Plurals,

    4. Capitalization,

    5. Correct and Preferred Usage,

    6. Non-English Words, Phrases, and Accent Marks,

    7. Medical Indexes;

  • Section 3. Terminology

    1. Abbreviations,

    2. Nomenclature,

    3. Eponyms,

    4. Greek Letters;

  • Section 4. Measurement and Quantitation

    1. Units of Measure,

    2. Numbers and Percentages,

    3. Study Design and Statistics,

    4. Mathematical Composition;

  • Section 5. Technical Information

    1. Typography,

    2. Manuscript Editing and Proofreading,

    3. Glossary of Publishing Terms,

    4. Resources.

AP Stylebook

The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, usually called the AP Stylebook, is an English grammar style and usage guide created by American journalists working for or connected with the Associated Press over the last century to standardize mass communications. Although it is sold as a guide for reporters, it has become the leading reference for most forms of public-facing corporate communication over the last half-century. The Stylebook offers a basic reference to grammar, punctuation and principles of reporting, including many definitions and rules for usage as well as styles for capitalization, abbreviation, spelling and numerals.

The first publicly available edition of the book was published in 1953 and was updated biennially over the next 20 years. The first Basic Books edition was published in August 1977.[1][2] Today, the AP Stylebook is updated annually (usually in June). Modern editions are released in several formats, including trade paperback, flat-lying spiral-bound, and an online subscription.

Writers in broadcasting, magazine publishing, marketing departments and public relations firms traditionally adopt and apply AP grammar and punctuation styles.

Organization

The stylebook is organized into sections:

Business Guidelines

A reference section for reporters covering business and financial news including general knowledge of accounting, bankruptcy, mergers and international bureaus. For instance, it includes explanations of five different chapters of bankruptcy.

Sports Guidelines and Style

Includes terminology, statistics, organization rules and guidelines commonly referenced by sports reporters, such as the correct way to spell and use basketball terminology like half-court pass, field goal and goaltending.

Guide to Punctuation

A specific guide on how to use punctuation in journalistic materials. This section includes rules regarding hyphens, commas, parentheses and quotations.

Briefing on Media Law

An overview of legal issues and ethical expectations for those working in journalism, including the difference between slander and libel. Slander is spoken; libel is written.

Photo Captions

The simple formula of what to include when writing a photo caption, usually called a cutline in newspapers.

Editing Marks

A key with editing symbols to assist the journalist with the proofreading process.

Bibliography

This provides second reference materials for information not included in the book. For example, it says to use Webster’s New World College Dictionary, s first reference after the AP Stylebook for spelling, style, usage and foreign geographic names.

The Business Style Handbook

The Business Style Handbook: An A-to-Z Guide for Effective Writing on the Job, usually called The Business Style Handbook, is a 280-page style guide tailored to people who write on the job. The authors are Helen Cunningham and Brenda Greene.

McGraw-Hill published the first edition in 2002[1] and the second edition in 2012.[2] In 2003, McGraw-Hill published the book in complex Chinese.[3][4] In 2004, China Financial and Economic Publishing House published a simplified Chinese edition.[5][6] Tata McGraw-Hill released an Indian edition in 2003.

This style guide focuses on business communications and is tailored for people who write on the job, which distinguishes it from style guides that are written from a journalism perspective.[8] To develop the book, the authors surveyed communications executives at Fortune 500 companies. Results of that survey are summarized in the first chapter. The book also includes a 200-page section of A-to-Z entries on usage, grammar, punctuation and spelling for words and phrases commonly used in business writing.

Example: ampersand (&) Use the ampersand in an organization’s formal name if that is what the organization uses, as in Barnes & Noble (do not write Barnes and Noble). But do not use the & in place of and in text. Write Trinidad and Tobago, not Trinidad & Tobago. If, however, you are using abbreviations, replace and with &, so that research and development becomes R&D, profit and loss becomes P&L.

The Business Style Handbook is on the recommended reading list for Microsoft Education Written Competencies [9] and is found in university libraries around the world.[10]

It is frequently recommended for business writing courses at universities, including USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.[11] Writing institutes, such as Borders Connect, a U.K. learning provider, also use the book for courses.[12]

Organization

The Business Style Handbook is organized as follows.

Acknowledgments

Cites the Fortune 500 companies and communications executives who participated in the authors’ surveys for the first and second editions of the book.

Introduction

Describes the purpose of the book and its methodology.

Fortune 500 Survey Results

A summary of findings from the authors’ survey on writing practices at Fortune 500 companies. For example, it quotes one respondent who states, “No matter the level of employee, clearly communicating ideas is critical to the success of initiatives.”

Why Style Matters

Discusses the importance of writing well to establish credibility in business. For example, “Good communication skills are increasingly viewed as a core competency in the corporate world.”

The Case for Standards

Reviews the benefits organizations can gain from helping employees strengthen their writing skills.

Write with Purpose

Outlines how to approach writing strategically.

Email: Before You Hit Send

Gives recommendations for best practices in business emails, such as how to use cc, bcc and Reply to All appropriately.

The A-to-Z Entries

A 200-page section of entries on usage, grammar, punctuation and spelling for words and phrases relevant for business writing.

Example: bottom line, bottom-line Two words when used as a noun, as in How will the price increase impact the bottom line? Write with a hyphen when used as an adjective: It is too soon to assess to the bottom-line impact of the price increases.

The Chicago Manual of Style

The Chicago Manual of Style (abbreviated in writing as CMOS or CMS, or sometimes as Chicago[1]) is a style guide for American English published since 1906 by the University of Chicago Press. Its seventeen editions have prescribed writing and citation styles widely used in publishing. It is "one of the most widely used and respected style guides in the United States".[2] The guide specifically focuses on American English and deals with aspects of editorial practice, including grammar and usage, as well as document preparation and formatting. It is available in print as a hardcover book, and by subscription as a searchable website as The Chicago Manual of Style Online.[3] The online version provides some free resources, primarily aimed at teachers, students, and libraries.

The Chicago Manual of Style is published in hardcover and online. The online edition includes the searchable text of both the sixteenth and seventeenth—its most recent—editions with features such as tools for editors, a citation guide summary, and searchable access to a Q&A, where University of Chicago Press editors answer readers' style questions. The Chicago Manual of Style also discusses the parts of a book and the editing process. An annual subscription is required for access to the online content of the Manual. (Access to the Q&A, however, is free, as are various editing tools.)

Many publishers throughout the world adopt "Chicago" as their style. It is used in some social science publications, most North-American historical journals,[4] and remains the basis for the Style Guide of the American Anthropological Association, the Style Sheet for the Organization of American Historians, and corporate style guides, including the Apple Style Guide.[5]

The Chicago Manual of Style includes chapters relevant to publishers of books and journals. It is used widely by academic and some trade publishers, as well as editors and authors who are required by those publishers to follow it. Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations also reflects Chicago style.

Chicago style offers writers a choice of several different formats. It allows the mixing of formats, provided that the result is clear and consistent. For instance, the fifteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style permits the use of both in-text citation systems and/or footnotes or endnotes, including use of "content notes"; it gives information about in-text citation by page number (such as MLA style) or by year of publication (like APA style); it even provides for variations in styles of footnotes and endnotes, depending on whether the paper includes a full bibliography at the end.[1]

Table of Contents

  • List of Tables

  • List of Figures

  • Preface

  • Acknowledgements

  • Part I: The Publishing Process

    1. Books and Manuals

    2. Manuscript Preparation, Manuscript Editing, and Proofreading

    3. Illustrations and Tables

    4. Rights, Permissions, and Copyright Administration by William S. Strong

  • Part II: Style and Usage

    1. Grammar and Usage by Bryan A. Garner

    2. Punctuation

    3. Spelling, Distinctive Treatment of Words, and Compounds

    4. Names, Terms, and Titles of Works

    5. Numbers

    6. Abbreviations

    7. Languages Other than English

    8. Mathematics in Type

    9. Quotations and Dialogue

  • Part III: Source Citations and Indexes

    1. Notes and Bibliography

    2. Author-Date References

    3. Indexes

  • Glossary

  • Bibliography

  • Index

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), by Henry Watson Fowler (1858–1933), is a style guide to British English usage, pronunciation, and writing. Covering topics such as plurals and literary technique, distinctions among like words (homonyms and synonyms), and the use of foreign terms, the dictionary became the standard for other style guides to writing in English. Hence, the 1926 first edition remains in print, along with the 1965 second edition, edited by Ernest Gowers, which was reprinted in 1983 and 1987. The 1996 third edition was re-titled as The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and revised in 2004, was mostly rewritten by Robert W. Burchfield, as a usage dictionary that incorporated corpus linguistics data;[1] and the 2015 fourth edition, revised and re-titled Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, was edited by Jeremy Butterfield, as a usage dictionary. Informally, users refer to the style guide and dictionary as Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Fowler, and Fowler’s.

In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Henry W. Fowler’s general approach encourages a direct, vigorous writing style, and opposes all artificiality, by firmly advising against convoluted sentence construction, the use of foreign words and phrases, and the use of archaisms. He opposed pedantry, and ridiculed artificial grammar rules unwarranted by natural English usage, such as bans on ending a sentence with a preposition; rules on the placement of the word only; and rules distinguishing between which and that. He classified and condemned every cliché, in the course of which he coined and popularised the terms battered ornament, vogue words, and worn-out humour, while defending useful distinctions between words whose meanings were coalescing in practice, thereby guiding the speaker and the writer away from illogical sentence construction, and the misuse of words. In the entries "Pedantic Humour" and "Polysyllabic Humour" Fowler mocked the use of arcane words (archaisms) and the use of unnecessarily long words.

Quotations

Widely and often cited, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage is renowned for its witty passages, such as:

Didacticism
    The speaker who has discovered that Juan and Quixote are not pronounced in Spain as he used to pronounce them as a boy is not content to keep so important a piece of information to himself; he must have the rest of us call them Hwan and Keehotay; at any rate he will give us the chance of mending our ignorant ways by doing so.[2]
French Words
    Display of superior knowledge is as great a vulgarity as display of superior wealth—greater indeed, inasmuch as knowledge should tend more definitely than wealth towards discretion and good manners.[3]
Inversion
    Writers who observe the poignancy sometimes given by inversion, but fail to observe that 'sometimes' means 'when exclamation is appropriate', adopt inversion as an infallible enlivener; they aim at freshness and attain frigidity.[4]
Split infinitive
    The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish. ... Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are a happy folk, to be envied by the minority classes.[5]
Terribly
    It is strange that a people with such a fondness for understatement as the British should have felt the need to keep changing the adverbs by which they hope to convince listeners of the intensity of their feelings.[6]
Welsh rarebit
    Welsh rabbit is amusing and right. Welsh rarebit is stupid and wrong.[7][8][9]

The Sense of Style

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century is a 2014 English style guide written by cognitive scientist, linguist and popular science author Steven Pinker. Building upon earlier guides, such as Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, it applies science to the process of writing, and explains its prescriptions by citing studies in related fields – e.g., grammatical phenomena, mental dynamics, and memory load – as well as history and criticism, to "distinguish the rules that enhance clarity, grace, and emotional resonance from those that are based on myths and misunderstandings".

Pinker’s prescriptions combine data from ballots given to the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, the usage notes of several dictionaries and style guides, the historical analyses in Merriam–Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, the meta-analysis in Roy Copperud’s American Usage and Style: The Consensus, and views from modern linguistics represented in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and the blog Language Log.

Prologue

"Style" is the effective use of words to engage the human mind. Style manuals that are innocent of linguistics are crippled in dealing with the aspect of writing that evokes the most emotion: correct and incorrect usage. Orthodox stylebooks are ill-equipped to deal with a fundamental fact about language: it changes over time. Language is not a protocol legislated by an authority but rather an evolving set of tacit standards from the contributions of millions of writers and speakers.

Good writing

Reverse-engineering good prose as the key to developing a writerly ear – The starting point for becoming a good writer is to be a good reader. Good writers are avid readers. They have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash. This is the elusive "ear" of a skilled writer – the tacit sense of style which cannot be explicitly taught.

A window onto the world

Classic style as an antidote for academese, bureaucratese, corporatese, legalese, officialese, and other kinds of stuffy prose – The key to good style, far more than obeying any list of commandments, is to have a clear conception of the make-believe world in which you’re pretending to communicate. A writer of classic prose must simulate two experiences: showing the reader something in the world, and engaging the reader in conversation. Classic style is an ideal. Not all prose should be classic, and not all writers can carry off the pretense. But knowing the hallmarks of classic style will make anyone a better writer, and it is "the strongest cure for the disease that enfeebles academic, bureaucratic, corporate, legal, and official prose".

The curse of knowledge

The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the curse of knowledge – the difficulty of imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. Be aware of specific pitfalls that it sets in your path, e.g., the use of jargon, abbreviations, and technical vocabulary. Show a draft to some people who are similar to your intended audience, and find out whether they can follow it. Show a draft to yourself, after enough time has passed that the text is no longer familiar. Rework and revise.

The web, the tree, and the string

Understanding syntax can help a writer avoid ungrammatical, convoluted, and misleading prose – Learning how to bring the units of language into consciousness can allow writers to reason their way to grammatically consistent sentences, and to diagnose problems. Grammar is a fascinating subject in its own right, when it is properly explained.

Arcs of coherence

How to ensure that readers will grasp the topic, get the point, keep track of the players, and see how one idea follows from another – Even if every sentence in a text is crisp, lucid, and well formed, a succession of them can feel choppy, disjointed, unfocused, incoherent. A coherent text is a designed object: an ordered tree of sections within sections, crisscrossed by arcs that track topics, points, actors, and themes, and held together by connectors that tie one proposition to the next. Like other designed objects, it comes about not by accident but by drafting a blueprint, attending to details, and maintaining a sense of harmony and balance.

Telling right from wrong

How to make sense of the rules of correct grammar, word choice, and punctuation – The idea that there are exactly two approaches to usage – all the traditional rules must be followed, or else anything goes – is a myth. The first step in mastering usage is to understand why the myth is wrong. There is no such thing as a "language war" between prescriptivists and descriptivists. "The alleged controversy is as bogus as other catchy dichotomies such as nature versus nurture and America: Love It or Leave It." The key is to recognize that the rules of usage are tacit conventions. A convention is an agreement among the members of a community to abide by a single way of doing things.

Linguists capture their regularities in "descriptive rules" – that is, rules that describe how people speak and understand. A subset of these conventions is less widespread and natural, but has become accepted by a smaller community of literate speakers for use in public forums such as government, journalism, literature, business, and academia. These conventions are "prescriptive rules" – rules that prescribe how one ought to speak and write in these forums.

Unlike the descriptive rules, many of the prescriptive rules have to be stated explicitly, because they are not second nature to most writers: the rules may not apply in the spoken vernacular, or they may be difficult to implement in complicated sentences which tax the writer’s memory. This raises the question of how a careful writer can distinguish a legitimate rule of usage from a tall tale. The answer: look it up. Pinker includes a short guide to a hundred of the most commonly raised issues of grammar, word usage, and punctuation. (For Pinker’s Top 10 list, see [1].)