Dec 302006

“Sentence first — verdict afterwards,” says the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland; and the trial of the Knave of Hearts has justly remained the literary standard for injustice, since the book’s publication in 1869.

Being an idiot, I thought the expression originated with Lewis Carroll, until last night. I was reading Macaulay’s 1830 essay on Lord Byron, and ran across the following passage, on Byron’s failed marriage: “True Jedwood justice was dealt out to him. First came the execution, then the investigation, and last of all, or rather not at all, the accusation.” The term “Jedwood justice,” also new to me, implied that the concept is proverbial, and led to a slightly earlier citation, in 1828, from Walter Scott’s Fair Maid of Perth: “Jedwood justice — hang in haste and try at leisure.”

Jedwood (or Jedburgh) justice, it turns out, goes under various aliases: Cupar (or Cowper) justice, Halifax law, Abingdon law, and Lydford law. Cupar and Halifax are dead-ends. A Major-General Brown, of Abingdon, is supposed to have hanged his prisoners and then tried them, but Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable appears to be the sole authority for the Major-General’s existence.

Lydford proves more fertile. Chambers’ Book of Days cites an “old English proverb”: “First hang and draw, then leave the cause to Lydford Law.” He also quotes a poem, by the early 17th century poet William Browne, in Lydford’s defense:

I oft have heard of Lydford Law,
How in the morn they hang and draw,
And sit in judgment after:
At first I wondered at it much;
But since, I find the reason such,
As it deserves no laughter.

They have a castle on a hill;
I took it for an old wind-mill,
The vanes blown off by weather.
To lie therein one night, ’tis guessed
‘Twere better to be stoned and pressed,
Or hanged, now chose you whether.

Ten men less room within this cave,
Than five mice in a lantern have,
The keepers they are sly ones.
If any could devise by art
To get it up into a cart,
‘Twere fit to carry lions.

When I beheld it, Lord! thought I,
What justice and what clemency
Rath Lydford when I saw all!
I know none gladly there would stay,
But rather hang out of the way,
Than tarry for a trial!

Browne lived in Tavistock, a neighboring town in West Devon, and he knew what he was talking about: Lydford prison was described in 1512 as “one of the most heinous, contagious, and detestable places in the realm” (here’s a rather bucolic picture of the ruins). Depending on how long one had to tarry for a trial, Browne’s reasoning may have been sound as well. It is amusing at the very least.

My patchy scholarship, abetted by some desultory Googling, can take me no further. Can my readers supply earlier citations, in English or another language?

Update: You can tell me or you can tell Language Hat.

Dec 232006

Albert Hirschman has many fans at the arbiter of all things serious, Crooked Timber. Tyler Cowen, in one of his fitful attempts to shore up his left-wing cred, praised Hirschman as deserving of the Nobel Prize in Economics and The Rhetoric of Reaction as “a brilliant study in intellectual self-deception.” Good enough! I ordered up my copy and prepared to be edified.

The Rhetoric of Reaction proposes a taxonomy, or really a nosology, of arguments frequently employed by reactionaries. It begins with T.H. Marshall’s Class, Citizenship, and Social Development and its convenient, if schematic, tripartite division of “the development of citizenship” in the West. According to Marshall, first there were civil rights (freedom of religion, speech, and thought); then political rights (universal suffrage); and finally economic rights (the welfare state). Marshall allots these three developments a century apiece — the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth, respectively. They are “progressive.” Whoever opposes any of them is “reactionary.”

If that’s all it takes, then count me in: I won’t defend universal suffrage, let alone the welfare state. I take solace in my distinguished and eclectic company. Hirschman’s reactionaries range from monarchists like Maistre and Burke to flaming socialists like Mosca and Pareto to welfare state critics like Friedman, Hayek, and Charles Murray, who get an especially raw deal. Friedman, who proposed a negative income tax, and Murray, with his similar grand scheme to replace the welfare state, cannot be fairly characterized as intransigently opposed to “reform.” Violence is being committed on the terms “reactionary” and “reformer.”

But to make a neat taxonomy you have to break a few eggs, and Hirschman’s is very neat indeed. We reactionaries, Hirschman says, argue against a proposed “reform” in three ways. The policy will do the opposite of what was intended (perversity). The policy will do nothing at all (futility). The policy will do other damage unrelated to its ends (jeopardy).

Hirschman’s categories are also more fluid than he acknowledges; the identical argument must be reclassified depending on how the reformer defines his ends. Take gun control. An opponent — the “reactionary” — might, and probably will, argue that it will prevent homeowners from defending themselves. This will reduce the risk to criminals, and thus crime will increase. If the advocate — the “reformer” — defines his end as reducing crime, we have a perversity argument. If he defines his end as reducing household gun accidents, we have a jeopardy argument. Hell, if the reformer defines his end as protecting innocent homeowners, and the additional homeowners who are shot by robbers cancel the ones who no longer shoot themselves, we might even have a futility argument. But it’s the same argument.

Still, Hirschman is on to something here. Jeopardy, futility, and perversity are all variations on unintended consequences, a traditionally rich field for ironists, and his thesis goes a long way toward explaining why “progressives” are so excruciatingly sincere:

There has been a certain lack of balance in the recurring debates between progressives and conservatives: in the effective use of the potent weapon of irony, conservatives have had a clear edge over progressives. In [Tocqueville’s] hands [the French Revolution] begins to look naive and absurd, rather than infamous and sacrilegious — the predominant characterization conveyed by earlier critics such as Maistre and Bonald. This aspect of the conservatives’ attitude toward their opponents was also reflected by the German term Weltverbesserer (world improver), which evokes someone who has taken on far too much and is bound to end up as a ridiculous failure…. In general, a skeptical, mocking attitude toward progressives’ endeavors and likely achievements is an integral and highly effective component of the modern conservative stance.

I once read a news item about an oil-slick cleanup, it might have been the Exxon Valdez spill, I can’t remember. Countless mammals and birds are scrubbed; vast trouble is taken. Finally all is ready: the cosmetologists gather on the beach, and a freshly shampooed otter is ceremoniously released into the sea. It swims to the crest of the first wave, where it is promptly eaten by a killer whale. If you laugh, you are a reactionary.

Of course it is funny. But so what? Maybe the otter ran into extremely bad luck. Maybe so many animals were rescued, and so efficiently, that a few meals for Shamu made no difference. Perhaps what really makes a reactionary is that he finds this story not only funny, but a dispositive argument against oil-slick cleanups. I owe this thought to Hirschman, and it is enough to make me glad to have read the book. “Reactionaries” pride themselves on deep thinking and “hard-headed realism” the same way “progressives” pride themselves on moral superiority, and often with no more justification. Not all reforms fail, and not all unintended consequences are bad. It is salutary to be reminded to cast out the beam from your own eye before beholding the mote in your adversary’s.

But Hirschman has broader aims:

There has indeed been a more basic intent: to establish some presumption, through the demonstration of repetition in basic argument, that the standard “reactionary” reasoning, as here exhibited, is frequently faulty….

A general suspicion of overuse of the arguments is aroused by the demonstration that they are invoked time and again almost routinely to cover a wide variety of real situations. The suspicion is heightened when it can be shown, as I have attempted to do in the preceding pages, that the arguments have considerable intrinsic appeal because they hitch onto powerful myths (Hubris-Nemesis, Divine Providence, Oedipus) and influential interpretive formulas (ceci tuera cela, zero-sum) or because they cast a flattering light on their authors and provide a boost for their egos. In view of these extraneous attractions, it becomes likely that the standard reactionary these will often be embraced regardless of their fit.

Hirschman does not establish, beyond noting the similarity in the stories, that the perversity and futility theses “hitch onto” Oedipus and Hubris-Nemesis. And even if they do, where did the myths themselves originate? Isn’t it likely that both Oedipus and the argument from perversity, both Hubris-Nemesis and the argument from futility, originate in observed facts about events?

And his taxonomy is too comprehensive to sustain the charge of overuse. Throw out perversity, futility, and jeopardy, and what’s left? A reform’s ends are always noble, in the eyes of the reformers. Would Hirschman prefer that reactionaries argue against liberty, democracy, a minimal living for the poor, or clean air? When Charles Fourier tells us that socialism will raise the human average to the level of a Goethe or an Aristotle, should we reply that we prefer the human average as it is? Hirschman professes disappointment in the reactionaries: “Instead of the rich historical argumentation to which I was looking forward, the purveyors of the jeopardy claim, from Robert Lowe to Samuel Huntington, have often satisfied with simple affirmations of the ceci-tuera-cela [this will kill that] type.” The arguments in which, by implication, he thinks reactionaries ought to engage would really let him down.

Hirschman is much given to ironizing about the reactionary propensity to ironize. He surely appreciates the irony that his likely audience, “progressives,” will find nothing but confirmation for its beliefs. Few “reactionaries,” who could profit from the book, will ever read it.

Post scripta: It does not bear directly on Hirschman’s thesis, but the casual dishonesty of some of the footnotes is shocking in a scholar of his reputation. He writes of Gustave Le Bon, the author of The Crowd: “His basic principle being that the crowd is always benighted, he makes it apply with remarkable consistency, regardless of the constituents of the crowd and of their characteristics as individuals: ‘the vote of 40 academicians is no better than that of 40 water carriers’ he wrote, thereby managing to insult in passing the French academy with its forty members, an elite body from which he resentfully felt himself excluded.”

There is a footnote after “excluded,” which simply refers to the passage from The Crowd that he quotes, supplying no evidence for Le Bon’s alleged resentment. Hirschman must know that the note belongs directly after the quoted passage. By placing it where he does he bolsters, with an irrelevant citation, an unsupported slur.

Here is Hirschman later in the same chapter, on the 1834 Poor Law Amendment: “…the new arrangements were meant to deter the poor from resorting to public assistance and to stigmatize those who did by ‘imprisoning [them] in workhouses, compelling them to wear special garb, separating them from their families, cutting them off from communication with the poor outside, and, when they died, permitting their bodies to be disposed of for dissection.'”

Hirschman intends the reader to take the quotation at face value, as a factual description of the effect of the Amendment. But the footnote, at the end of the passage, is to Gertrude Himmelfarb’s classic The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age. The note says, accurately, that Himmelfarb is summarizing William Cobbett. The note does not say that Cobbett was one of the most vigorous contemporary opponents of the Amendment; neither does it say that Himmelfarb spends her next five pages qualifying and disputing him. The very page Hirschman quotes has a note of its own: “Cobbett was especially outraged by the practice of dissection, which he took to be the ultimate degradation and desecration caused by the New Poor Law. This was not, of course, part of the law, and it is not clear how common it was for workhouses to dispose of bodies for this purpose. But it was widely believed to be the case, partly because of Cobbett’s repeated charges to this effect.”

I hope Hirschman footnotes his works in economics, the ones that merit the Nobel Prize, more correctly.

Dec 142006

Periodically I shall adjudicate blog disputes. There is no appeal.

First on the docket we have Gawain, of Heaven Tree, vs. Conrad Roth, of Varieties of Unreligious Experience. Gawain, upset with the Uffizi museum for neither allowing photographs nor selling reproductions of its collection, is driven to guerrilla tactics. He photographs, presumably illicitly, a bust of Scipio Africanus, and posts it for the world to see.

Conrad defends the Uffizi policy on the paradoxical grounds that it makes the enjoyment of its treasures all the greater for those who can travel there and look at them in person. For they can also delight in thinking of all the poor slobs who can’t make the trip:

For me, elitism is simply the general notion that things are better when fewer people have them, and that the few (whether groups of one member or 500) should be (and are) hostile — snobbish — to the many. There are, of course, an infinity of fews. Everyone belongs to several. And the pleasure of belonging to a few — especially if that few is just oneself — is derived from the fact that it is not a many. Such a pleasure is concurrent with the pain felt by those outside the few who want in; nevertheless, our pleasure outweighs their pain, and I see no reason to deny ourselves the satisfaction. Everyone benefits in the long view.

Conrad means that the pleasure of being in derives from the imagined pain of those who are out, and no amount of shuck and jive about “concurrent with pain” and “not a many” can disguise the fact. It is not enough, for Conrad, to see the treasures of the Uffizi. Others must be prevented from doing so. Or as Gore Vidal once wrote, “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

There are indeed an infinity of elites, or at least a great many, but Conrad has multiplied them beyond necessity. There are two elites in his argument where there ought to be only one.

One elite is the people who visit the Uffizi. This elite imposes no duties of connoisseurship or discrimination: only the time, the money, and the inclination to visit are required. What really interests, or ought to interest, Conrad is the other elite, whose members, instead of filing dully past the Scipio bust, look it over carefully and see some of what Gawain sees. One can belong to the first and not the second — and now, thanks to Gawain and despite the Uffizi’s policy, to the second and not to the first. Virtually all of Emily Dickinson’s best poems can be found on the web. Anyone can join who is willing to invest the time and effort to grasp the poems. This elite will be tiny to begin with. Would Conrad propose to narrow it further by requiring anyone who wants to read Dickinson to travel to Amherst to study the original manuscripts?

The court finds for Gawain. He is, however, directed to pay damages to the Uffizi, for infringing its reproduction rights, in the amount of $0.10 for each blogger who links to his article. That’s 20 cents and counting. Conrad is directed to stop whinging that Gawain doesn’t leave enough comments on his blog.

Next up are A.C. Douglas, of Sounds and Fury, and Campbell Vertesi, of, um, Campbell Vertesi’s blog. A.C. issued one of his clarion calls for “hierarchical sobriety,” by which he means that pop culture is pop and high culture is high, and not only shall the twain never meet, they shall not even be profitably compared:

Metaphorically speaking (and once one gets past technical considerations of craft, one can speak of the core matters of aesthetics in no other way), the singular principal hallmark of all artifacts of the realm of high culture is their perceived aspiration to transcendence; transcendence of the quotidian world of experience, of the culture within which they were produced, and even of their very selves as works of art. And that singular hallmark is what’s singularly lacking in all the artifacts of the realm of popular culture, their singular principal hallmark being a perceived aspiration to the widely accessible here-and-now entertaining.

Campbell replies that what we call “pop” and “high” is largely an accident of time and place, and that many “high culture” artifacts were written to entertain, or even, God forbid, to make money. As a musician, he adduces Rossini and Gilbert and Sullivan; as a literatteur, I would add Homer and Shakespeare. Some of today’s “pop” artifacts will surely belong to the high culture of the next century, although it is precipitous to speculate which. Campbell goes on to argue that “if no aesthetic judgements are permitted between the two musical traditions, it follows that any two representatives of the fields take on equal status.”

Here he puts his case badly, as A.C., who is nothing if not tireless, points out in his inevitable reply. The conclusion does not follow; but it need not either. What Campbell should have said is that a purported defender of high culture ought to be prepared with a convincing answer to a high school student who asks why he must study The Scarlet Letter instead of the latest X-Men comic. I would want to be armed with a little more than “perception of aspiration to transcendence” myself.

These converted verbs disavow their subjects. “Perception” occurs, without a perceptor; “aspiration” without an aspirant. Campbell reasonably asks who or what is doing the aspiring; A.C. does not deign to answer. It’s a metaphor, you see, and there the matter ends. The “aspiration” (by the artist? the work?) to “transcendence” (of quotidian experience? of the culture? of itself?) is cloaked in the “perception” (of the audience? of Campbell Vertesi? of A.C. Douglas?) and the whole business is wrapped in a metaphor. This is, as Woody Allen once remarked, a travesty of a mockery of a sham. Nothing is at the center except the usual because I say so.

Accordingly, the court finds for Campbell Vertesi, who is nonetheless directed to learn how to spell “transcendence.” A.C. Douglas, for his part, is enjoined from using the word for a period of six months. He is also enjoined, permanently, from employing “bourgeois” as a term of abuse. (“Bourgeois” does not appear in the current case, but this court is acquainted with his past torts.) Come to think of it, this injunction is general. Dismissed.

Dec 082006

The first piece of advice in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style concerns punctuation — the proper use of the apostrophe. I learn that I must write “Charles’s execution,” but “Jesus’ crucifixion.” Already my prose is improving, though not at the rate I would like.

Items 2 through 8 also concern punctuation. I learn to balance my commas, and to handle colons, semi-colons, and em-dashes with aplomb.

Punctuation is important. Its abuse can be a source of unintentional hilarity. (“I would like to thank my parents, God and Ayn Rand.”) Some would go so far as to regard it as an index to character. On its wings a marginally literate Englishwoman has soared to international celebrity. But The Elements of Style purports to be a guide to writing English. A badly punctuated essay can be corrected in minutes. A badly written essay can probably never be corrected at all.

Strunk and White expand their range in Items 9 and 10, which advise, respectively, that subject and verb agree in number and that pronouns be proper case. This is unexceptionable: as most of these errors derive from being unable to determine the subject or the case, it is also useless. With a final warning against dangling modifiers, buttressed by several amusing, if unlikely, examples (“Wondering irresolutely what to do next, the clock struck twelve.”), Strunk and White conclude their “Rules of Usage” and move on to “Principles of Composition.”

There are eleven of these:

1. Choose a suitable design and hold to it.
2. Make the paragraph the unit of composition.
3. Use the active voice.
4. Put statements in positive form.
5. Use definite, specific, concrete language.
6. Omit needless words.
7. Avoid a succession of loose sentences.
8. Express coordinate ideas in similar form.
9. Keep related words together.
10. In summaries, keep to one tense.
11. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

A strange mix of the anodyne, the obvious, and the risible. Omitting needless words is a fine idea, certainly better than adding them. (And how much better to choose a suitable design than an unsuitable one!) To judge from White’s introduction, it appears to have been a particular favorite of Strunk’s:

In the days when I was sitting in [Strunk’s] class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself — a man left with nothing more to say and yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had outdistanced the clock. Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times. When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, “Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”

Willy Three Times, with so many minutes to spare, might have mentioned, in order of increasing importance, omitting needless sentences, omitting needless paragraphs, omitting needless chapters, and omitting needless books of advice. He might have touched on how to judge what is needless, which is where the trouble lies. But this would be difficult to do in “a hortatory essay…. of sixty-three words.”

The cabal of linguistics professors at Language Log likes to laugh at Strunk and White. They go especially hard on using the active voice and omitting needless words. Sometimes they lose their cool. A “vile collation of stupid advice and false claims about grammar”? Stupid and false perhaps, but vile? Professor overboard!

At any rate, the merits of the particular principles are mostly beside the point. The list reminds me of the to-do lists I make periodically, which include items like “learn Spanish” and “blog more often,” and items like “take out the trash” and “pick up the dry cleaning.” I somehow never get around to blogging more often or learning Spanish. The Strunk and White reader will never get around to choosing, and holding to, a suitable design either — not that the book would aid him if he did.

The hyphen, parenthesis, quotation mark, and exclamation point — apparently the red-headed stepchildren of punctuation — are relegated to Section Three, “A Few Matters of Form,” along with a few desultory bits of advice about dates, titles, margins, headings, and syllabification that must have fit nowhere else. The Elements is not, shall we say, rigidly organized. What did I read somewhere about choosing and holding to a suitable design?

Section Four, “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused,” parades the usual suspects alphabetically: aggravate vs. irritate, irregardless, nauseous vs. nauseated, try to vs. try and, and so on. Such lists have historical interest at best. Strunk’s original, which included cranks like studentry for student body and forcible for forceful, might have made mildly diverting reading. But White, and subsequent editors (the franchise has fallen to his stepson and fellow New Yorker icon, Roger Angell), felt obliged to keep things current, so the section now reads like a transcript of Patricia T. O’Connor’s NPR show. Ambrose Bierce’s little book, Write It Right, is the same kind of collection, with two advantages over Strunk and White. Bierce is wittier; and he had only one edition to prepare. It is amusing to read his objections to “conservative estimate,” because “having been found to have several meanings, conservative seems to be thought to mean anything”; or to “United States” as a singular noun, because “grammar has not a speaking acquaintance with politics, and patriotic pride is not schoolmaster to syntax.” It is edifying to learn that sideburns, in 1909, was still considered a vulgarism for burnsides.

Although Bierce’s book and Strunk’s original were almost exactly contemporary, they sometimes differ, and where they do Bierce always wins on points. For Bierce — and for me, and for Webster’s 2ndgratuitous means “without cost,” while for Strunk and White it means “unwarranted.” Strunk and White allow clever, in the sense of good-natured, to apply to horses, though not to people; Bierce says that “in this sense the word was once in general use in the United States, but is now seldom heard and life here is less insupportable.”

With Section Four Strunk’s contribution ends. For the first edition White added Section Five, “An Approach to Style,” in an effort not to shortchange his publisher. He begins by asserting that “style is something of a mystery,” which does not stop him from going on for another twenty pages in an attempt to unravel it. He takes as his text the first sentence of Common Sense: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Here we have eight short, easy words, forming a simple declarative sentence. The sentence contains no flashy ingredient such as “Damn the torpedoes!” and the words, as you see, are ordinary. Yet in that arrangement they have shown great durability; the sentence is now almost into its third century. Now compare a few variations:

Times like these try men’s souls.
How trying it is to live in these times!
These are trying times for men’s souls.
Soulwise, these are trying times.

It seems unlikely that Thomas Paine could have made his sentiment stick if he had couched it in any of these forms. But why not? No fault of grammar can be detected in them, and in every case the meaning is clear. Each version is correct, and each, for some reason that we can’t readily put our finger on, is marked for oblivion. We could, of course, talk about “rhythm” and “cadence,” but the talk would be vague and unconvincing.

Is this really so mysterious? A cursory consideration of the alternatives immediately removes the second, which sounds personal and petulant, as if Paine were short next month’s rent; and the fourth, with its grisly “soulwise.” The original is a perfect line of iambic tetrameter, with the first foot inverted — a common pattern in English poetry. None of the alternatives, except the hopeless fourth, scan naturally. Paine manages the buzzing sibilants brilliantly, bookending the first half of the line with “these” and “times” to produce a heavy caesura, and placing “men’s” next to “souls” to lengthen, and thus emphasize, the final foot. Strunk, who wrote a book about English meter, could have explained this easily. Unfortunately when White wrote this passage Strunk had been dead for a decade.

White continues with twenty-one more rules, which would be classed, if the book were properly organized, with Strunk’s Principles of Composition, and suffer from most of the same defects. I, for one, find it especially helpful to be told to be clear, to write naturally, not to overwrite or overstate, and not to explain too much. Before White, I used to try to be obscure, write unnaturally and floridly, exaggerate, and beat every point into the ground. White’s advice to write with nouns and verbs I will leave to Language Log. An admonition, contradicting the spirit of the previous eighty-four pages, that “style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition” brings The Elements of Style to a merciful close.

This sorry hash has become a modern American classic, selling more than ten million copies. High schools require it. Parents send their children off to college with a copy packed in the luggage. People who ought to know better continue to recommend it, whether out of ignorance or deference is difficult to say. My mother likes it, and she hates everything but Middlemarch.

The Elements of Style, at its birth, had the field to itself. Today writing guides litter the aisles at Barnes & Noble, largely because of its success; but in 1959, when Macmillan commissioned White to whip it up, there was Fowler, who was scholarly and British, and very little else. White was also famous, which is how Americans prefer their how-to authors. Famous mathematicians write primers on mathematics, and famous physicists write primers on physics, but for some reason primers on writing are traditionally consigned to obscurities. Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas, who wrote Clear and Simple as the Truth, the best style book I know, are distinguished academics, but you’ve never heard of them.

The Elements of Style owes its success, above all, to its cramped and pedantic outlook. Strunk and White treat writing from the point of view of the copy editor, as if there were nothing that a vigorous line edit couldn’t fix. In fact there is very little that a vigorous line edit can fix. It certainly would not fix The Elements of Style.

I know only two infallible rules for writing well. First, read good writing: take it apart to see how it works, where it succeeds and fails, and then imitate it as best you can. Who would produce must first consume. (Faulkner recommends reading bad writing as well, but I have tried reading Faulkner, and it did me no good.) Second, write exactly what you think. Certain authors, like Céline and Henry Miller, have survived despite prose that lacks every virtue but this one. Most of us suppress our best material, in the interest of job security or domestic tranquility or not being forced to flee the country.

These rules, in guidebook form, would not sell ten thousand copies, let alone ten million. They require diligence, persistence, and courage to follow. Don’t bother. Spend your time balancing commas, double-checking apostrophes, eliminating adverbs, rewriting passives, and rearranging conjunctions. You’ll make teacher happy, and you won’t have to go into exile.

Update: Maxine Clarke comments. It is odd that in England, of all places, they seem not to have heard of the Oxford comma, but there it is. Frank Wilson comments. Derek Lowe comments. Battlepanda comments. Thudfactor comments.