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Strunk and White

Does The Elements of Style deserve its hallowed status?

By
Mignon Fogarty,
April 17, 2009
Episode #166

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Elements of StyleToday's topic is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice

Fifty years ago this month, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style as we know it today was published*, and in honor of the occasion, the noted linguist and grammarian Geoffrey Pullum has written a scathing review of the book in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice"; and many people who listen to this podcast or subscribe to my e-mail newsletter have written in to ask what I think.

Well, I know many of you love that book, but Pullum backs up every one of his criticisms, for example pointing out that Strunk and White's examples in the "Use Active Voice" section are strangely contrived, and the examples of passive voice sentences aren't actually passive voice sentences. It's hard to argue with that.

Styles Versus Rules

But I have my own beef with “Strunk and White,” which doesn't so much relate to the content, but instead to the hallowed status so many writers give the book. I can forgive a few errors, although after 50 years you'd think someone would have fixed them. But the tragedy to me is that “Strunk and White” is the only grammar book so many people have ever studied, and nobody bothered to tell them, or they didn't remember, that the book is largely about style choices, not hard-and-fast rules. A style guide is, by definition, a book that in large part prescribes how a writer should treat things that could go either way—style choices. But the thing that makes the book so popular—Strunk's simple bold statements—makes people believe that style choices are actually rules.

Even before Pullum's review I gave an interview to Time Out New York in which I noted that the most striking thing about The Elements of Style is that nobody seems to pay attention to the introduction in which White himself undermines much of the book's credibility, or at least takes great pains to point out that the book is not the inerrant grammar ruling of God that so many people seem to think it is.

First, Strunk and White weren't people who devoted their lives to studying grammar, and they didn't work together to create The Elements of Style. William Strunk taught English at Cornell and wrote the first version of the book—which was only 43 pages—for his English students at Cornell. In a sense, the book was his own personal style guide.

White was a brilliant writer; he's the same White who wrote Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, but he wasn't a linguist or grammarian. He was hired to revise the book for re-release after Strunk died, and he nearly doubled the length of the book with his additions.

Elements of Style image courtesy of Wine Press Publishing

Next: White Attempted to Temper the Strunk's Directives

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