Strunk and White

Does The Elements of Style deserve its hallowed status?

Mignon Fogarty,
April 17, 2009
Episode #166

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

White's Attempt to Temper the Book's Directives

In his introduction White recounts that he gave the book "a thorough overhaul—to correct errors, delete bewhiskered entries, and enliven the argument," and of Strunk's recommendations White said, "He had a number of likes and dislikes that were almost as whimsical as the choice of a necktie, yet he made them seem utterly convincing...Will Strunk loved the clear, the brief, and the bold, and his book is clear, brief, and bold. Boldness is perhaps its most distinguishing mark...[Strunk] felt it was ‘worse to be irresolute than to be wrong.'" These are all the characteristics that led Strunk to state his recommendations as strong rules. I think it's pretty funny that according to White, Strunk advised students, "If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!"

And Strunk wasn't afraid to make up words. According to White, Strunk "Despised the expression 'student body,' which he termed gruesome, and made a special trip downtown to the Alumni News office one day to protest the expression and suggest the [the wor 'studentry' be substituted—a coinage of his own, which he felt was similar to 'citizenry.'” Now if a newspaper today started using a made up word like "studentry" instead of "student body," I know many of you would write to me to complain about it.

And White continues in his introduction to point out that their book is just one point of view. For example, when talking about how to make a word that ends with "s" possessive, White says, "Style rules of this sort are, of course, somewhat a matter of individual preference, and even the established rules of grammar are open to challenge."

Accept the Limitations

But, because the main text ignores style choices and makes bold statements that sound like rules, “Strunk and White” is easy to teach. There's no acknowledgement that there are different ways of doing things, and that's my main criticism of the book. It's written in a way that encourages students to believe the recommendations are rules, and often introductory English teachers teach it as though the recommendations are rules, ignoring White's own introduction in which he is very clearly trying to temper that point of view.

I sympathize with teachers; I know it's easier to teach rules than styles where you have to explain that there's this way of doing something, but there's also that way of doing something, but that's the reality of the English language. “Strunk and White” is a fine addition to anyone's library, but it shouldn't be the only book you ever consult, and if you're arguing with someone about a style choice, you don't automatically win just because you can say, "Strunk and White said so."

*The original version of The Elements of Style was self-published by Strunk for use in his English class at Cornell.


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