Book Review: The Elephants of Style

Knowing that I’m doing freelance editing work, my good friend Stephanie gave me Bill Walsh’s The Elephants of Style : A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English as a Christmas gift. It’s a surprisingly easy read for a book about grammar, and I actually read the whole thing, cover to cover. Essentially, the book is meant to cover the gray areas of grammar, which Walsh calls the “elephants.” His goal is not to settle the ambiguity, but instead to “find a consensus on what doesn’t look stupid—at least for now” (xiv).

Some of his preferences offend my purist nature—for example, using “they” as a gender-neutral, singular pronoun instead of “he”—but I grudgingly take his larger point: written English evolves just as spoken English does. There isn’t an English-language authority as there is in other languages, and after a time it starts to look ridiculous to stick to outdated usages, even in writing. I don’t like it, but I think he’s right (grr).

The book is full of useful grammatical information, such as punctuation distinctions between American and British English and an explanation of when to use “due to” vs. “because of.” Most of Walsh’s recommended grammar “rules” follow practicality rather than long-held convention, but he occasionally goes the other way and rants against loosening standards too far. Rather than making him appear confused, I generally perceived his rants to be well-founded. For example, when he discusses the use of hyphens in compound modifiers (such as “real estate salesmen” vs. “real-estate salesmen,” which is technically correct), he complains that “a casual approach to compound modifiers robs the language of nuance” (133).

One drawback to the book for some readers may be Walsh’s emphasis on newspaper style conventions. He spends a lot of time talking about Associated Press style vs. Washington Post style vs. New York Times style and so on, and many of his text examples involve subjects typically covered in a newspaper. These sorts of things weren’t really useful to me, but they make sense given his history as an editor for the Washington Post. For me, it didn’t detract from the overall usefulness of the book.

I love precision of language. The Elephants of Style provides me with a balanced approach to writing and editing that allows me to seek that precision without appearing stilted and outdated, in a readable and sometimes humorous manner. Four stars!


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