Wood’s Lot has directed my attention to The Literary Encyclopedia, a work in progress that aims to “provide profiles of the lives and works of literary authors whose works are valued in the English language, and to do so within an electronic publication which will enable readers to explore literary history as never before.” A noble goal, and I wish them every success; having found the entry on Ezra Pound (a useful test case in several respects) properly appreciative and occasionally severe (“Guide to Kulchur (1938) is a less controlled prose diatribe, more of a political and cultural rant”), with a link to a useful Pound page from Kobe University, I have already bookmarked the site and will be following its progress.

There is, however, a caveat. The writing, while acceptable from academics (and mercifully free of Judith Butler–style jargon), is not of a particularly high order (as can be seen from the above quote: “…works of literary authors whose works are valued in the English language…”). This would not be especially significant except that they have chosen to write and include a style book, a “Guide to the Writing of Scholarly English” (I can’t take you to it, thanks to their use of frames, but the link is in the left-hand column below “Make a Timeline”). Not only is this not required, or even expected, of such a site, it seems a pointless superfluity in a world where style guides are in plentiful supply online, from good old Strunk & White to the alt-usage-english FAQ. The bad writing, however, renders it not only otiose but obnoxious; what is the point of a style guide written in a manner that violates the very rules it wishes to inculcate? Here is the first paragraph of the Introduction:

I have written this guide to help explain why a feature of written English is incorrect. As many colleagues and students have found this guide useful, I have posted it in a public place, but I am anxious neither to set up as expert nor pedant. Like many teachers of English, I learned my grammar through foreign languages, and then through encountering problems in my teaching, rather than being properly taught. No one who takes language seriously can want to impose a procrustean idea of ‘right language’. Language grows and changes, but it does have to make sense. My aim has been to provide a reasoned check-list of good practice, and to do this in numbered paragraphs so that I (and others) can use it rapidly and effectively to help students when correcting essays. The reference numbers by each section point to an explanation of a common fault and provide examples of good and bad practice. If you find this guide useful, I will be very pleased. I will also welcome suggestions of improvement. If The English Style Book reduces the time spent puzzling about what someone might have been trying to say, and gives us more time to discuss the complexities of writing and experience, I will be very pleased.

To the first sentence I respond “which feature would that be?” I leave as an exercise for the reader the faults of grammar, style, or logic that pervade the rest. And if the good people at the Encyclopedia ultimately decide to junk the section (referring their students, perhaps, to the better-written and infinitely livelier Guide to Grammar and Style by fellow member of the professoriat Jack Lynch)… well, in their favorite locution, I will be very pleased.


  1. Have I mentioned that I’ve always wanted to found a breakfast cereal called “Otiose”? I’d thought that it would be best served by a box similar to the one “Wheaties” comes in, only instead of sports figures, they would feature such luminaries as Robert J. Lurtsema and William Bennett….

  2. Twenty years later: The linked site is still going strong, but it is now called The Literary Encyclopedia (shamelessly shilling WP article which someone should rewrite in an at least vaguely objective way) and charges $29.00/year, so I have replaced the link in the post with an archived one.

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