Strunk and White

Show me a guy who invariably says “six persons”
and I will show you a fathead.

Patricia T. O’Conner

Did you see the gentle evisceration of the esteemed The Elements of Style over at the New York Times today? It’s the fiftieth birthday of this venerable book, and modern critics are ready to put the book back on the dusty shelf (rather than keep it at ready on the desk).

I’ve minced no words in my general disdain for Strunk and White. I’ve always thought that while it might be handy for teaching high schoolers how to write a composition paper, it’s of little use to creative writers. We’re supposed to be the avant-garde of the language, not perservers of some falsely idealized past. We creative writers have the privilege to invent expression and style, yet too many of us seem to revere this little book, to take its rules as gospel truth, to limit our writing to its meager range, and to judge others’ work by its anemic little standards.

The various contributors to the Times piece are polite about the book, but it’s clear that they don’t feel bound by its dictates.

I always feel like I’m tilting at windmills when I make these iconoclastic posts, but it’s not really the rules I object to. It’s the unconsidered adherence people give them. I see it time and again in blogs — The Elements of Style is the best guide for a writer. No one seems to say why exactly. They just know that it is. When I see this, I see an amateur writer, a beginner, an assembler of words but not someone who wants to craft the language. The dictates in The Elements of Style may make your writing easier to read, but that’s not the same thing as making it better.

I have a copy of The Elements of Style on my bookshelf, but I haven’t looked at it in years, and I likely won’t for years. As Emma Darwin has pointed out, these kinds of things are “tools, not rules.”

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4 Comments on “Strunk and White”

  1. J.M. Reep Says:

    I agree. I think the real problem with EoS isn’t just the errors that Geoffrey Pullum points out, but just the simple fact that the book (White’s version) is 50 years old. The worst misconception that people can make about language, especially a language like English, is to think that English is static, that the “rules” are unchanging, and that a style guide that is 50 years old is still entirely relevant today. Instead, a living language is always in flux — it’s like a living person. It’s always changing, growing, adapting. To think that EoS is still relevant today is to think that the English language is dead, like Latin.

  2. Rod Duncan Says:

    I also have S&W sitting on my reference shelf. It is used once in a while and thus earns its very narrow space.

    Surely there is a question of balance here. Anyone who says we should be rigidly constrained by prescriptive grammar text books is clearly wrong. The language is a living thing and has always changed. But to treat grammar as a purely descriptive thing where anything goes in any situation would allow the language to drift and mutate so rapidly as to impede communication.

    I was horrified when my first novel came back from the copy editor and I discovered that he had corrected grammar in dialogue. I phoned my editor and she told me: “We get our copy editors work in pencil so the authors can rub the changes out again.”

    Not such a bad balance.

  3. paullamb Says:

    JM – Thanks for your thoughts. It’s always good to rethink our sacred cows.
    Rod – I agree. I think my greatest objection is not to the set of rules but to the blind adherence so many writers give them. We’re supposed to be the creators, not the followers.

  4. Mark Garvey Says:

    Hi. Based on this interesting post, and the comments here, I thought you might be interested in seeing latest blog post regarding Strunk, White, and the NY Times piece. I hope you enjoy it.

    http://blog.textarts.com/2009/04/strunk-and-white-elements-of-style.html

    Best regards,
    Mark Garvey


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