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Strunk and White

Does The Elements of Style deserve its hallowed status?

By
Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #166

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 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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