How much can one trust a curmudgeonly English composition teacher who terrorized his early 20th-century Cornell students? How relevant are his grammatical admonitions today? With little else to support my inclination to remove the word respective or its adverb partner respectively and unite the string of data points with what they modify, I find the barking rules of E. B. White’s college rhetoric teacher William Strunk Jr calming.
Based on White’s description of his teaching style in the introduction of Elements of Style,1 I can assert with some certainty that had Strunk found himself an adjunct English composition instructor today, “lean[ing] forward over his desk, grasp[ing] his coat lapels in his hands, and in a husky, conspiratorial voice, say[ing], ‘Rule Thirteen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!’” it might not go over so well with today’s sensitive students. The style of this widely emphatic man who barked writing rules during his lectures lasted a lifetime for White. Now about 100 years later, such barking would likely cause a rush to the dean’s office to do something about this brazen man’s approach to teaching. He would simply not be asked back the next semester because the trend today is for warm-hearted English comp teachers to create a safe environment in which students can write without becoming immobilized by gruff commands. So in as much as the style of teaching would end a career today, should one conclude that Strunk’s rules for writing have become as out of date as his approach to teaching them?
Several months ago, after reading White’s delightful 1972 homage to Strunk, I flipped through some of the commands and came upon a piece of advice that lifted me out of my self-doubt and emboldened me not to give up on eradicating the use of the word respective. Unlike the image of Strunk as confident, I am not so. I am one who will eventually cave on a rule, especially if I’m the only one defending it. For example, the use of healthful over healthy when describing behavior that leads to my good health—I have let it go. If a manuscript comes in describing eating fruit as healthy, I will let it stand and not change it to healthful.
Yet, when I see in almost every article that I edit a string of numbers followed by a list of items each number describes covered by respectively at the end of the sentence, my eyes cross. I become disheartened. As I push back my sleeves to match the experimental treatment groups with the values to describe the efficacy of a treatment, I sometimes wonder whether it is worth the effort to set up the parallel structure and the repletion of words to make the match. I sigh and do it, hoping not to offend the author.
Copyediting is a solitary experience that doesn’t often allow for consensus about the rules because, as they say, much of it is a matter of preference. But when one’s eyes land on a sure-footed confirmation about a problem that niggles and nags almost every day of my work life, I must rejoice, which is exactly what I did when my eyes fell to Strunk’s simple exhortation:
Respective, respectively. These words may usually be omitted with advantage.
My heart leaped. I am not alone! Strunk follows his simple rule with an example that justifies my applying it to scientific editing.
The mile run and the two-mile run were won by Jones and Cummings, respectively.
The mile run was won by Jones, the two-mile run by Cummings.
Look at that. The second example has fewer words.
The true purpose of writing is to be clear and not make the reader work too much. As the attention span of the reader decreases by the second, making them match numbers to words 3 lines down gives the reader little reason to continue. In light of today’s hot-footed race against time, I say Strunk is more relevant now than ever. White was right when he wrote in 1979:
“All through The Element of Style one finds evidences of the author’s deep sympathy for the reader. Will felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, a man floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get his man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope.”
—Beverly Stewart, MSJ
1. Strunk W Jr, White EB. Elements of Style, 2nd ed. New York, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co; 1972.