I would like to join my colleague Geoff Pullum in celebrating Jan Freeman’s superb takedown of that mangiest of stuffed owls, Strunk and White’s inescapable The Elements of Style, which has just undergone its latest restuffing, this time with illustrations by Maira Kalman (it’s been taxidermized more often than Lenin’s corpse). A sample:
It was never a seamless creation, to be sure; the 1959 first edition merely sandwiched Strunk’s 1918 handbook for his Cornell students, lightly edited, between White’s introduction and his essay on prose style. But at least you knew Strunk was Strunk, vintage 1918, and White was White, circa 1958. Succeeding revisions, instead of blending the disparate parts, have left ”Elements” a hodgepodge, its now-antiquated pet peeves jostling for space with 1970s taboos and 1990s computer advice.
(The illustrated ”Elements” is essentially the 1999 edition, with a couple of small restorations from the 1918 original. Not quite a restoration, alas, in the case of Strunk’s introduction: The proofreaders overlooked one of his ”Words Often Misspelled,” so the opening sentence now promises ”to give in brief space the principle requirements of plain English style.”)
Scanning the recent editions, you sometimes wonder what could possibly have been cut, given the absurdity of what remains. Don’t use claim to mean ”assert”? Mark Twain did it in 1869, the year Strunk was born. Don’t contact anyone? It’s a ”vague and self-important” verb—or so people said in the 1920s, when it was new. Don’t use they to refer to ”a distributive subject” like everybody—unless you’re E.B. White: ”But somebody taught you, didn’t they?” says a character in ”Charlotte’s Web.”
Ouch. I know I can’t talk you Strunk-lovers out of your affection, but can you at least look on the damn book as an affectionate portrait of a crotchety former teacher and not as a guide to English, a task for which it is manifestly unsuited? Let it sit harmlessly on the mantelpiece and glare out at the unruly world with its glassy eyes.