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Book Review: The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly by Charles Harrington Elster

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If you can endure a metaphor stretched beyond its limits through more than 250 pages of text, you’re ready for Charles Harrington Elster’s latest book on writing style. It is not, however, a style book as in an organized guide like the AP or either of the MLAs in which you can look up punctuation “rules” and correct usage. The entries (there are no chapters) have whimsical titles like “Not everything is major” and the word “major” appears in the index, but how would you know to look for it?

Elster’s Accidents of Style is yet another book that writers might enjoy reading for fun, but beginners will find of little use. By the end, they will be thoroughly confused about the meaning and even the spelling of “wreckless” and “reckless.” The careful writer/driver aims to be “wreckless” as in having no accidents. The reckless driver/writer, on the other hand, will tumble into the potholes and pitfalls that Elster points out. So he says.

Some of those roadblocks, perhaps only the author perceives and points out. If they are online and indexed by Google, they are candidates. (I discount any cited source containing the term “wiki”). Consulting how many returns the search engine yielded for many of the entries must have made child’s play of the research part of writing this book. It also padded out the 350 entries, which appear in no particular order, ending with a soliloquy on “who and whom.” That particular entry concludes:

So, don’t be afraid to use who when it comes naturally to you and whom seems unidiomatic. But also be mindful that whom still plays a role in the language that should be respected.

An Introduction that presents catachresis as a jumped up way to say solecism does not seem to be a progression of “increasing complexity from the rudiments to the punctilios,” as stated in A Note to the Reader. (That’s from page five, where we also meet peripatetic, affable and cicerone.)

On another hand, some of the lessons are sticky (in cyber terms). The day after reading about til, the word fairly jumped out of any text I read, and I felt embarrassed and self-conscious every time I started to use it incorrectly. (Using it at all is incorrect.) Too many of the writing road bumps now jar my trip through any literature. I cringe at the word “impact” after seeing Accident 53, “Overuse of impact,” almost two pages of ravings. Yes, Elster hit on some mistakes I am making after too many decades of writing and editing. Some might think that alone makes the book worth reading. Another result, however, is that my blog posts have become doubly difficult to compose!

There’s also the question of what’s right and what’s not in using English words. Quite a few of Elster’s diatribes are simply matters of personal taste, often presented with a supercilious attitude toward those who disagree with him. Yet, he doesn’t hesitate to cite sources on his side and lambast writers of a different opinion, citing titles and issues where the mistakes occurred. He spares not even our hometown newspaper, calling it a “fish wrap.” Yes, I know, old journalistic joke, not an intended insult. Or is it?

Many of the entries elicit a yawn and not a few made me wonder who would say or write that? Others are simple spelling errors and not a few, reminders of eighth grade punctuation lessons. It is pleasing to see some I used for blog posts, usually beginning “Don’t confuse….” Thankfully, I notice no listing for ellipses.

On the whole, The Accidents of Style is not suitable as reference material for writers, though it does have a lengthy, useful Bibliography. It is fun to read and would be more enjoyable if the author were not so snotty about his preferences and others’ gaffes.

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About Georganna Hancock

Retired San Diego publisher, journalist, freelance editor and writer, blogged almost daily for eight years at A WRITERS EDGE. She helped writers on the path to writing success with critiques, edits and publishing advice. Find her author page on Amazon and her tweets on Twitter, where she's aka @GLHancock. Georganna's first writing appeared in print in the 1960s. She worked as a journalist for many years. She reviewed books for the FORT PIERCE NEWS TRIBUNE and THE LOUISVILLE COURIER-JOURNAL and wrote for THE MIAMI HERALD, regional publications, and many national magazines. She was a member of the National Book Critics Circle, the San Diego Professional Editors Network and the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild, for which she served as Web Manager. Books reviewed may have been received as gifts. All her writings are protected by U.S. copyright law.