Struck Funk

The Elements of Style belongs on every editor’s bookshelf, but not for the reasons you might think.

To get this out of the way first: It’s not a very good writing book. For a rundown of why this is so, Geoffrey Pullum’s 2009 Lingua Franca essay “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice” remains a thorough guide to the many faults of the “Little Book,” ranging from its innocuous-but-largely-useless style advice (“Be clear,” as if one generally sets out to do otherwise) to its truly wrongheaded guidance on grammar, exemplified by the dog’s breakfast it makes of its discussion on the passive voice. Strunk and White certainly had a lot of advice for writers, but very little sense of when they themselves were following it (which they often weren’t), and even less actual knowledge of the grammar they purported to be authorities on, leading Pullum to conclude, “English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can’t even tell when they’ve broken their own misbegotten rules.”

The fact that, half a century and more since its first appearance, Elements remains a go-to book of style and grammar advice for student writers is a real shame, considering its deep and numerous flaws; I might go a step further than Pullum and say that even much of what he tags as “mostly harmless” has an insidious effect in producing the kind of writing no one really wants to read. The Elements of Style won’t help you become a good writer; the best it will do for you is make you an inoffensive one, which is not exactly the goal most of us have when we take up the craft. But if what you really want is to adopt a style that clips off everything that’s interesting, flavorful, and distinctive about your voice, taking all of Strunk and White’s stylistic precepts to heart would make an excellent starting point.

Elements remains popular, I would hazard a guess, for two reasons: One, it’s short and easily digested; and two, lists of things-not-to-do always make tempting shortcuts to real skill. Which is why I don’t have a good alternative to suggest as a replacement for the Little Book, much as I would love to offer one. The bad news is that actual mastery of writing takes years of observation and effort and producing bad prose before you start to produce the good. You’re not going to get it out of a padded-out pamphlet of “rules,” many of which were obsolete at the time they were written down.[1] You’re not going to get it out of a longer text, either; it’s the kind of craft that only comes from doing things wrong, and then listening closely to people who are able to explain why those choices were wrong in that particular context, and then being able to develop a sense of intuitive right choices based on a feeling for the flow and rhythm of words – what Kory Stamper refers to as sprachgefühl. And then you’re going to have to revise anyway. Sorry.

So why do I advocate that every editor keep a copy on hand? Well, there are two good reasons, and one is practical: You may well end up with a client or boss who expects you to adhere to its rules, however stupid they are. In which case, you’re (probably) not being paid to make them smarter. Grit your teeth, be a professional, and do the job, and maybe try to find other work that actually values your expertise.

The other reason is more philosophical. The fundamental problem of Elements (aside from the issue that its authors thought they knew more about English than they did, decades before Dunning and Kruger put their fatal flaw into words) is that Strunk and White were unable to separate their opinions from facts – or at least unable to articulate their opinions in a way that didn’t sound like they were passing down timeless principles. (This actually happens a lot, especially in the world of art and letters; Aristotle jots down a few things he finds especially satisfying when he goes to the thespian shows, and centuries later Renaissance dramaturgs rediscover the Poetics and start talking about the “Classical unities” as if they were the foundational laws of the dramatic arts.) The authoritativeness with which the late Mr. White and his even later professor set down their preferences as though they were truths is compelling – so much so that it’s easy to forget it’s an illusion.

In this sense, then, The Elements of Style is worth studying as a warning about the trap of hubris in the craft of letters. We writers and editors have lots of opinions on things, often strongly held: on the serial comma, on the use of semicolons or adverbs, on the appropriateness of neologisms. It’s good to keep in mind that the way we feel about these represents a right way, but not the right way, and that our opinions are just one vote in the vast democracy of language. Look on the Little Book, and remember: Do not become like Strunk and White. Someone is paying attention. Do them the good service of giving your own preferences no more weight than they deserve.


[1]The standard answer, of course, is that students need to “first learn the rules before they learn to break them.” The trouble is that very few people advance to the second part, and cling to the rules they first learned like they represent a lost chapter of Leviticus. Writing is a complex subject, and part of learning it is learning to acknowledge its complexity instead of making like it’s much more simple than it actually is.

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3 thoughts on “Struck Funk

  1. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style was written for an even more limited audience than students; it was written for freshman comp students expected to master the humanities expository essay.

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  2. And in that narrow context, leaving aside the misinformation on matters grammatical, it works pretty well. Which makes it all the more frustrating to see it remain the evergreen text of guidance for all nonfiction writing (I really have seen businesses that use it as their company style guide, for heaven’s sake; and even William Zinsser, who is in many ways more sensible than that, recommends rereading it once a year). It’s like going to the movies and basing half your criticism on whether or not the dialogue scans.

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