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an English-language authority as there is in other languages, and after a time it starts to look ridiculous to stick to outdated usages, even in writing.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me with a balanced approach to writing and editing that allows me to seek that precision without appearing stilted and outdated, in a readable and sometimes humorous manner.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!

Editing, Reviews, and More!

As I’m sure many of you have noticed, I have had a “services” page up for quite some time. I have, however, been making some changes to what I offer as time goes on. Most importantly, I’d like to highlight changes to my pricing:

  • Instead of charging a flat, $3 per page rate, The Edifying Word now charges between $1 and $3 per page, depending on the work requested.
  • Basic proofreading services start at $1 per page and the rates will increase as the services become more complicated.
  • The $3 per page rate included all services: structural, content, and copy editing, as well as proofreading.

Book review and beta reading services remain free of charge.

I’ve made a few other administrative changes that may not be obvious:

  • The Edifying Word has a new domain name: (Don’t worry – redirects here, so it will still work.)
  • I have a new email: Please email me – I can’t wait to hear from you!

Also, coming soon:

  • I’m working on a “testimonials” page where I will share comments from clients who have been pleased with my work.
  • A logo for The Edifying Word is in the works. I’m so excited to be working with Meghan Calabro of 200 Spring! Check her out!

I look forward to working with all of you! Please pass along the word to anyone you think may appreciate my services.