Level-zero programmers obsess over essentially unimportant details of programming: whether you should write blocks like

void someFunction(void) {
printf “Yesn”;

or like

void someFunction(void)
printf “Yesn”;

, for instance, or whether to use vim or emacs to edit your code. These are unimportant for at least a couple reasons. First, you can solve these sorts of style problems in an entirely automated way. Second, there are many, many things that are more important than these sort of nits; they don’t even really impact your code’s readability, for one. These details don’t even count as ‘style’. They’re purely mechanical.

A level-zero English-language writer pays attention to Strunk & White. What’s odd about Strunk & White is that, far from being about [book: The Elements of Style] like its name suggests, it’s really [book: The Elements of Grammar]. True, grammar does matter. Inasmuch as “style” means “writing to appeal to your audience,” and inasmuch as your audience cares about little grammar nits, grammar is important. Grammar, in this view, is arbitrary but important. It’s like the location of the silverware at dinner, or like not chewing with your mouth full: it’s an arbitrary convention that certain groups of people pay attention to. It’s a class identifier. Using “whom” properly, or not ending a sentence with a preposition, is a class identifier. It’s a way to signal to people of your class that you’re one of them. Others will completely miss the signal, which doesn’t make them rubes; it just means that they don’t subscribe to your particular class signals. So call it [book: Elements of Writing For The Wealthy], perhaps.

But even with that caveat out of the way, and even if you don’t agree with Language Log that Strunk & White is a pile of trash, it’s still the case that [book: The Elements of Style] is wildly, comically unimportant to the act of writing readable text. Whether you use “whom” properly (and I’m a dues-paying member of the Whom-Using Board Of Pedants) has practically nothing to do with whether people will read your writing all the way through to the end.

Grammar is important to get you off the ground, in a certain sense. Works riddled with typos are often hard to get through. Using commas where you mean to use semicolons will sound wrong in your reader’s ear *if he’s trained to read them that way* (so again, the rule “know your audience” is logically prior to the rule “use punctuation properly”).

But that’s just the point: this is level-zero stuff. These are the rules you pay attention to because they’re rote and mechanical, and thereby easier to remember and implement than “grab your reader with a good hook” or “use lots of examples when you’re arguing an abstract point.” They’re high-school rules; they’re not adult rules.