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Correctness and Style

posted: 11.20.13 by Steve Bernhardt

We are moving Writer’s Help to a new and vastly improved software platform, one that provides greater flexibility for adding and arranging content. That means I get to think about reorganizing some categories in the table of contents. That wasn’t possible under the old platform. One distinction I am focused on is that between correctness and style.

Handbooks typically have a lot to say about correctness, often with a focus on error. That’s fine, because we want students to have subjects agree with verbs, pronouns agree with antecedents, semicolons correctly placed between two independent clauses, and proper nouns capitalized. English provides lots of opportunities to slip up, and clear errors should be fixed. Many readers notice errors and find them distracting.

Other aspects of language relate not to error, but to control. We can choose just the right word or construct nicely coordinated phrases. We wouldn’t be wrong if we chose other words or if our phrasing were not quite as elegant. In either case, we would be making stylistic choices, and we would judge some to be more effective or more to our purpose.

How important is this categorical distinction between error and stylistic choice? When I look at our current table of contents, I see subheadings such as those under style that characterize errors: awkward and dangling modifiers, shifts in tense or person, mixed constructions. But I also see subheadings that relate to control of style: sentence emphasis and sentence variety. I like things in neat categories, particularly in places that organize our thinking or direct our navigation, such as tables of contents. It doesn’t feel right to mix the negatives with the positives. So I would like to see some separation of correctness and style.

Of course, when I try to regroup, I have immediate problems. Is parallel structure a matter of correctness or style? It’s both. When phrases ought to be parallel and are not, that’s something that should be fixed. But a writer in full control of parallelism can create wonderfully balanced, delightfully turned constructions. Similarly, there are plenty of errors that arise from using wrong verb forms, but there are also qualities of power and concentration that flow from a well-chosen verb as the nexus of a well-formed clause.

What I hope to achieve with Writer’s Help are categories that reflect the obligations of writers to be correct, while encouraging those writers to develop a command of style. I’d like writers to see correctness as necessary but not sufficient for a strong style. And I would like them to see style choices as inviting, as an opportunity to choose structures and gauge effects. I am going to keep working to make these pedagogical goals visible in the table of contents.

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