You know which horrid book I’m talking about: that undeservedly famous guide by Strunk and White. The antidote is the little book Twelve Gifts for Writers by the inestimable James Harbeck. In 37 pages he distills real advice based on actual experience as a reader and a writer—not made-up advice based on random peeves and prejudices. Basing conclusions on evidence has finally come back into fashion right now; besides, it’s the right thing to do.
If you, gentle reader, are a former student of mine, you may have heard of Harbeck from one of his many short videos that I have shared with some of my classes. In that context you know him as a Canadian linguist—the most prominent contributor to popular linguistics in all of Canada, in my totally unbiased opinion. Harbeck’s academic background, up through his doctorate, is primarily in theater (or theatre, as those Canadians insist on writing)—and that field does have some effect on what he’s recommending here, especially its regard for the audience/reader. So does linguistics, but he doesn’t let either field be obtrusive.
You may be wondering how these recommendations are “gifts.” Are they like partridges in pear trees? Or drummers drumming, since there are 12 of them? The allusion to the well-known song is clear. You’ll have to judge for yourself, but Harbeck’s sparkling style is always engaging, and you will benefit from both his knowledge and his wit. As a linguist, he is of course at heart a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist, so he’s not big on what you probably think of as rules—unlike That Other Book. In fact, he says right up front that he has only one rule: “Write stuff your readers will be glad they’ve read.” (This reminds me of a distinction I frequently made in college, where I would say things like “I don’t want to take economics; I want to have taken economics.” Unfortunately I could never figure out how to accomplish the latter without doing the former.)
Be sure to check out Harbeck’s Sesquiotica blog, particularly his “new old words” category. You can find a link there to buy his books—or, if you’re feeling too cheap to buy the print edition of Twelve Gifts for Writers, you can download it as a free ebook. You can even find a link to buy a tee shirt or coffee mug that says “I operate on a NEED-TO-KNOW basis. I need to know EVERYTHING.” Me too.