About these notes

These notes on writing began in the early 1980s as a handout for my classes at UConn.  Originally it was largely plagiarized from a similar handout by Fritz Machlup, who had been something of a mentor to me when I was at NYU at the beginning of my career.  (And at the very end of his: Fritz died in January 1983.)  I embellished and added to the original handout, especially in the early years, and posted  a version of it to the web just about as soon as such a thing was possible.  Lately it hasn’t changed much.  It has often occurred to me to doubt the value of these short and sketchy thoughts, especially in a world in which one can find wisdom about writing dispensed abundantly.  But a surprisingly large number of people have told me that they do find the notes valuable.

In the early versions I took the standard prescriptive tone of those whom students of language deride as “language mavens.”  Having since read Steven Pinker and other serious language scholars, I see the error of my ways.  (See especially chapter 12 of Pinker’s The Language Instinct, as well as Geoffrey Pullum’s skewering of Strunk and White’s infamous Elements of Style, a book that, like most people, I had long been recommending.)  These notes have always mostly concentrated on writing style, and that is what I continue to emphasize in this revision (June 2010).  I have retained the more prescriptive parts on usage and punctuation, but I have toned them down more than a bit, and I offer them as rules that I happen to like to follow for old times’ sake.