This past June an unlikely book topped the Amazon best-seller list and launched a viral video: Go the F**k to Sleep, a profanity-laden, tongue-in-cheek children’s tale for parents. The following month, another parody title hit shelves, although to considerably less fanfare: The Elements of F*cking Style.
The latter book’s authors, Chris Baker and Jacob Hansen, took it upon themselves to update Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style, a guide to grammar and writing that nearly everyone has had to buy for an English class at some point. That book, they write, “has sold more copies than Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code combined, and is about as dry a read as the obituary section of your local newspaper.” Their book, by contrast, aims “to guide you through the painful world of English grammar and style by using sex, drugs, and fucking swearing.”
Thus, for Strunk and White’s rule “In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last,“ Baker and Hansen offer, “Commas are fucking fun.” For the former’s “Use definite, specific, concrete language,” we get the latter’s “Use strong, definite language in your writing. Make that sentence your bitch.”
And that’s just the beginning. The examples Baker and Hansen provide to illustrate grammar rules are far more, um, colorful than anything their predecessors could have dreamt up. Consider a model sentence showing how to use commas and conjunctions to join two independent clauses: “This night has been a complete disaster, but a blow job would probably salvage things.” This is one of the tamer offerings.
Baker and Hansen are not the first to recognize that the original Elements of Style could use a little dressing up. In 2005 Penguin released an illustrated version with whimsical art by Maira Kalman. I happen to think that the original holds up fine on its own, with such gems as this entry on the phrase “The foreseeable future”: A cliché, and a fuzzy one. How much of the future is foreseeable? Ten minutes? Ten years? Any of it? By whom is it foreseeable? Seers? Experts? Everybody?” But then, I am a grammar freak who constantly bemoans all the misplaced apostrophes, misused homonyms, and generally bad English out there in the world.
In the end, any effort to get people to write better and to make grammar sexy seems worthwhile—even if that “f*cking” in Baker and Hansen’s title sounds a bit desperate, like a nerdy high schooler who shows up to class one day in a leather jacket and ripped jeans. No one can blame him for trying to boost his image, but we all know he’s not really fooling anyone.