I suppose it was inevitable. I mean here I am, teaching a course filled with government writers. I should have expected that Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style would resurface as the style guide of choice. But still, I had hoped that after nearly 100 years, some of its popularity would have waned.
I mean, after all, the little book has spawned numerous printings, an illustrated version, a rap song, and an opera. When will people realize that it’s no longer a viable resource but an object of popular culture, nothing to be taken too seriously, something at which we poke fun (like this tortured clause, of which its authors would certainly approve)?
I just keep thinking that after Geoffrey Pullum’s damning article, The Elements of Style’s failures would have been recognized by now. Strunk’s inadequate understanding of grammar, the book’s poor advice, its inconsistencies – all of these have been brought to light. And yet, for some reason, people still cling to the notion that Strunk and White will resolve their editorial dilemmas, that it is THE resource to have on the shelf, and that nothing compares to the incomparable Elements of Style.
So let me once again do what I can to dispel the fog of mystique surrounding the tiny little tome, first by shining the clear light of day on its achievement.
In 1919 when William Strunk, Jr. penned the first edition of The Elements of Style, it was a revolutionary accomplishment. Compared to its contemporaries, it has three undeniable virtues. The Elements of Style is concise, accessible, and direct, unlike, say, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which is elaborate, pedantic, and ambulatory.
Those virtues are tarnished by E. B. White’s additions of 1957. His “Approach to Style” lengthens the book by nearly half its original size, and suggestions such as “do not affect a breezy manner” or “prefer the standard to the offbeat” are neither accessible nor direct (73, 81).
These are what we in the world of education call COIK, Clear Only If Known, as in this example:
“Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo-Saxon words.” (p. 77, 4th ed.)
A skilled writer will understand what a breezy manner, an offbeat language, or the Latin tongue are, where to find them, and how to replace them. A struggling writer will not. The skilled writer will therefore read Strunk and White with delight, nodding his or her head in agreement, pleased to have found a kindred soul in the pages of this slim volume. The struggling writer will pick up the book only to be befuddled and will put it down certain that clear communication is a gift with which he or she was not born.
And that’s my real concern with the ubiquity of Strunk and White – what is its value for the struggling writer in today’s linguistic climate? What was once concise now appears enigmatic. What was once accessible now seems exclusionary. What was once direct now reads as though it were persnickety.
Why is that? It’s not because the rules have changed. We should still “[e]nclose parenthetic expressions between commas” and “express coordinate ideas in similar form” (2, 26). It’s because our context is different.
Language use is no longer the purview of a “white-haired professor” “forcibly” delivering advice with a “kindly lash” (Introduction xv). That may well be a memory on which E. B. White looks back with fondness, but it is a vision which would make many a writer of today – particularly those who write professionally, not creatively – shudder.
Writing is hard, as the book’s foreword acknowledges. Mandates about the clumsy, pretentious devices we would best omit do not make it any easier. Writing becomes easier when a skilled practitioner shares the reasons writing is hard and offers practical suggestions to make it less so. Strunk and White succeed at this occasionally, but not often enough to be of value to today’s writer.
What has been your experience with Strunk and White? Do you have any favorite (or not so favorite) pieces of advice from The Elements of Style? Do you have a reference work you prefer? Let us know!