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.


  1. Amen!
    It’s a reasonable enough book to use in high school or lower level university composition classes, where the enforcement of such a spare, un-nuanced style actually makes sense (at least in terms of maintaining the sanity of the person who has to grade the papers). But good writers mature and put away such childish crutches. Or at least they ought to.

  2. Never read the book, but I occasionally feel impelled to defend the poor suckers. When I see it used, usually it’s with students (at all levels) who just plain don’t know how to write at all and have never wanted to learn, and who specialize in all kinds of obfuscation, evasion, and padding. I think that S&W might help them some.
    The specific dogmatic rules are a different story, but they do little actual harm. (I suppose that people / persons who write “persons” instead of “people” do mark themselves; perhaps this can be used as a shibboleth in the ultimate battle at the end of grammatical time, when the prescriptivists are finally cast into the everlasting hell of fire.)

  3. aldiboronti says

    I’ll stick with Fowler, warts and all. (I’d spare him the fiery pit too, although Sir Ernest Gowers can roast!)

  4. Yes, Fowler is delightful, and he made no pretense to laying down the law. Furthermore, he was surprisingly liberal for his day.
    amvhoward: I think it does harm even at that level, inculcating the idea that there are Rules and Authorities rather than appropriate styles for different circumstances. People should learn as early as possible that the ultimate authority for language is the speakers themselves, and the dictionaries and other references simply try to keep up.

  5. I’ll defend Strunk & White, even though I no longer have a copy. As a teenager, it was thin enough and entertaining enough that I read it carefully while my school-assigned books on style were gathering dust. I didn’t agree with everything in the book even then, but the book made me conscious of stylistic decisions that had to be made.
    On a more basic level, Strunk & White fixed a few problems I had with possessives, and for that I’m eternally grateful.

  6. I’ll continue to respectfully differ with you from a pedagogical perspective. Language is fluid, yes, and rules are made to be broken– but they ought to be broken intelligently. The effect should be that of a chisel laid to marble, not a hammer to fine china. Introducing people to the idea that the ultimate authority for language is the speakers themselves too early can lead to a breakdown of the common medium for communication, as students find justification for not bothering to learn the accepted conventions.
    Language develops and functions in the tension between its tendency to change over time (sometimes quite rapidly within small groups, such as teenagers) and the need for it to remain static enough to be understood over geographical or temporal distances. This need is usually less important in spoken communication, but essential to written communication. Arbitrarily imposed “rules” help slow the shifts in usage and keep written conventions viable over greater periods of time.
    You can’t explain this to a seventeen year old. Or perhaps you can, but I’ve never had any luck; they get around to understanding it by the time they’re twenty or so, if at all, but by that time, they’re usually almost out of university. Recourse to Rules and Authority simplifies the matter, though it does have the admittedly unfortunate side effect of generating folks like David Foster Wallace, who cling to the Rules in order to ward off their innate discomfort with language.
    So, while there are a number of places in which Strunk & White could stand a serious overhaul, as a general idea, it still has its place. That place just happens to be far, far away from most writing adults.

  7. How do you feel about the Chicago Manual of Style?

  8. Always glad to see Strunk/White taken down.
    I don’t have much to add to this except I’ve always felt that The White Strunk would be an excellent name for a rock band.

  9. amvhoward: rules are made to be broken– but they ought to be broken intelligently
    That’s fine as long as you’re providing actual rules rather than the invented crap that S&W shove on people. I mean, really — you shouldn’t say “five people” because you can’t say “one people”? What kind of nonsense is that to offer kids? I’m not saying they shouldn’t be taught the forms of standard written English, “rules” if you will, but S&W is not the way to go. Furthermore, its overwhelming prevalence, the fact that it’s the automatic choice for stocking-stuffers and graduation presents, makes it harder for better books to gain traction in the market. Bah, say I.
    Janet: I love the Chicago Manual. When you need consistent decisions on essentially arbitrary points (like where to hyphenate or capitalize), it’s superb, although I’m always finding little issues it doesn’t address.

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