The Language Perfectionist: A Useful New Language Resource

Given the depressed state of literacy, the appearance of an excellent new guide to grammar, style, and usage is an occasion for rejoicing.

The Accidents of Style by Charles Harrington Elster, just published, is a volume every writer should have at hand. It will help you polish your prose, express your ideas more clearly, and avoid numerous errors.

The title is a clever play on Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style. But although that 51-year-old reference book is still helpful, Accidents goes well beyond it, with 350 wry and well-reasoned essays on topics that Messrs. Strunk and White probably didn’t need to consider half a century ago.

“Accidents of style” are common mistakes, and Elster has fun with the metaphor: “This book shows you how to steer around the ruts and potholes…. It’s a crash course in careful usage.”

Elster is an authority on the English language. He has written books on, among other things, vocabulary building and pronunciation. Like me, he’s a purist and prescriptivist who also recognizes that the rules occasionally need revising and updating.

If you recall boring grammar lessons from your school days, fear not. Elster is an entertaining writer and he festoons his book with mischievous observations and asides. The following sampling will give you a sense of both the book’s content and the author’s puckish and sometimes barbed approach:

  • On the word impact: “This powerful word, which traditionally connotes considerable force, has lost all its forcefulness through incessant repetition [both as noun and verb]…. I, for one, will continue to boycott this word in all its monstrous forms….” Alternatives: effect and influence.
  • On the word kudos: “Kudos is a singular noun”; there is no such thing as a kudo. Also: “The word ought to be reserved for praise given for illustrious, or at least significant, achievement and not used as a pseudoliterary substitute for congratulations….”
  • On the vogue word issues: “This trendy euphemism, which may have come from the jargon of psychology or from the lingo of politics, avoids the perceived stigma and sting of problems and allows us to allude to difficulties without admitting that they exist…. Why do we shrink from saying what we mean [and instead] reach for this mealymouthed, weasel word issues?”
  • Adverbiage is… the overuse or awkward use of adverbs…. I will consider it conveys more promise of serious attention than I will seriously consider it. I reject the allegation is firmer and more confident than I utterly reject the allegation.”
  • On opening with “Let me see….“: “This lamest of rhetorical devices is invariably a setup, a con, the prelude to a haughty diatribe in which the writer displays his superior reasoning and confirms the stupidity of others by demolishing a straw man, usually with a lethal dose of sarcasm.”

The Accidents of Style offers much more: Advice on the proper use of punctuation (apostrophes, commas, quotation marks) and spelling (it’s espresso, not expresso and supersede, not supercede), and guidance on avoiding redundancies (close proximity, fellow colleagues), “confusables” (anxious vs. eager, emulate vs. imitate, flaunt vs. flout), and cliches and slang (at the end of the day, on the same page). In addition, the book contains quizzes to test your knowledge, tips to improve your writing, and even funny bloopers.

Unlike most other language guides, the structure of Accidents isn’t alphabetical by subject. Instead, the entries begin with simple matters, then become progressively more complex. The index will help you find what you’re looking for. The book can be used either as a reference or read straight through. Both routes will prove rewarding.

My one complaint is that Elster occasionally comes across as a bit of a curmudgeon, deriding those who don’t do things in his approved way. But considering how permissive most dictionaries and language authorities have become, a martinet may be just what we need to restore some balance. I learned a lot from The Accidents of Style. You will, too.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]