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The Gospel According to Strunk & White


“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

Dorothy Parker (Esquire)


      Who am I to argue with Dorothy Parker? (I have immense respect for that lady. She could write and drink…and do both rather well — which is one of the highest compliments I can pay any writer.)
     In fact, I’ve given away quite a few copies of this book myself. Though I always somehow feel they should come with a disclaimer.
      No, what I’m about to do here is something far worse: finding fault with Strunk & White.
      Let’s just get this part out of the way first, shall we:
      Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa…
      ’Cause we all know that disagreeing with The Elements of Style, by the aforementioned authors, is tantamount to grammatical blasphemy in modern America. It may not get you burnt for a heretic in every literary circle, but it raises the hackles of academics and publishers from one coast to the other, and can destroy an otherwise promising career.
      And that’s the part that pisses me off. Although I value the book — even generally accept its tenets — and agree that it’s an excellent starting point for inexperienced writers, I’m too well aware of its flaws to believe it should be regarded as infallible doctrine.
      Allow me to quote Mark Liberman on this topic, Trustee Professor of Phonetics in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, and founder of Language Log: “…I object much less to the book, which is a fine specimen of the genus of idiosyncratic usage rants, than to its reception as the foundational scripture of a strange stylistic fundamentalism.”

      Perhaps he puts it a bit more harshly than I would, yet he states the issue rather well.
      But don’t just take my word on this matter, or even his. If you’d care to hear a far more critical opinion of The Elements of Style than the one I’m about to present, I’d refer you to Geoffrey K. Pullum, another linguist, currently with the University of Edinburgh (but who previously taught at the University of Washington; Stanford University; and the University of California, Santa Cruz), and co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. His article, “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” is well worth a read. It goes into more detail than I’ll attempt here — and contains a good deal more vehemence. I keep a copy of it neatly folded, inside the back cover of my Strunk & White.
      Now, I’m not a professional linguist. Nor do I consider myself a grammarian — I’m not nearly that anal.
      I’m merely a writer, attempting to arrange words into meaningful patterns; I’m only an editor, trying to help rearrange sentences and paragraphs in such a way as to facilitate communication. (Contrary to the widespread superstition held by many authors, editors don’t really have any mystical powers.)
      So, how do I have the temerity to find fault with a book that’s sold upwards of ten million copies, or object to a style guide thought of as gospel by so many academics?
      As a matter of fact, that’s precisely my objection, that it is treated as gospel.
      I’ve generally no objection to other people’s religion, provided the dogma gives them some comfort and causes no genuine harm, as long as they’re not missionaries about it, seeking converts. In this case, however, the grammatical dogma does do some harm. And the prescriptivist sect is continually trying to persuade others to its way of thinking. Usually, they’ll cite some “higher authority”…often Strunk & White.
      Don’t get me wrong. I quite admire this little book, on the whole. Most of its recommendations are sound and valid. (In fact, the commercial editing section of our company uses it as one basis for manuscript analysis. After all, The Elements of Style does reflect generally accepted standard usage — even if that situation could more accurately be described as the other way round — and proofreaders have to start somewhere. Nevertheless, we warn our clients that certain of the recommendations derived from it might profitably be ignored.)
      I approach this style guide much as I do most other scriptures: by reading the material objectively, appreciating the elegance of its composition, and benefiting from what truths I might find there — without taking it as an article of faith that every single passage is wholly inspired or infallible.
      Although I wouldn’t presume to argue with Dorothy Parker, I will — on occasion — pick a fight with Strunk & White.
      The sometimes imperious and opinionated tone of their work is my first complaint with it. Many of its recommendations are phrased as dictates, which unsuspecting
 writers take as pronouncements from on high, even though the advice is often based on mere opinion. Some of the language that the book eschews as shopworn is still useful and no cause for particular shame, while some of the constructions it champions sound awkward and dated compared with modern usage.
      Furthermore, a careful reading of the text will reveal that the authors don’t always follow their own advice, even while they’re giving it. Whenever they inherently feel their writing would be improved by doing so, they dispense with one or more of the tenets they espouse. Good for them, I say. That’s a healthy attitude, one I wish were judiciously cultivated in more of their readers. (Unfortunately, Strunk & White fail to elucidate their thought processes at such times — and no dispensations are given.)
      In all fairness, however, I don’t find the same faults with them that some others do, over topics like using the passive voice (despite the fact that they’re hard-pressed to identify it properly), or splitting an infinitive. They make it perfectly clear that there are good reasons for doing such things, and that neither practice is anathema. I’m also relieved that they don’t campaign against ending a sentence with a preposition, or other such nonsense. (Lots of ill-informed “grammarians” did so for years, and a few still do.) So give them some credit.
      Throughout most of their book, Strunk & White offer solid and practical guidance, telling writers that they ought to use more active language with stronger verbs and fewer adjectives, tighten up their limp prose, omit unnecessary words, and simply: “Be Clear.”
      Amen to all that. I’ve no serious disagreement with any of these precepts (and it would save me some bother if more writers would take them to heart). The Elements of Style is filled with such commonsense notions. Don’t dismiss this valuable little book out of hand.
      At any rate — now that I’ve been gracious for a few paragraphs — let’s get down to specific grievances.
      I’ll limit myself to the decrees which I find most annoying.
      The first concerns that last sentence.
      According to Strunk & White: “That is the defining or restrictive pronoun, which the nondefining, or nonrestrictive.”
      In other words, they’d have me replace that which with another that. The Elements of Style would have you always commence a restrictive relative clause in this manner, given the choice. The fact that the word that might have already been severely overworked in the surrounding text doesn’t enter into it.
      And that was definitely a restrictive clause. (Remember, I tend to agree with Strunk & White most of the time.)
      Note: It’s not that I find all of their decrees annoying. No, these are specifically the decrees which annoy me most. And my attitude toward these particular decrees isn’t incidental information, but a defining identification of them. Not every one of their decrees, but these. Placing a comma in front of that which would render it a nonrestrictive relative clause, implying that I find all of their decrees most annoying. Actually, that isn’t the case.
      And, No, I don’t see any need to replace that which with another that. Why should I? Perfectly competent writers have been using the pronouns that and which interchangeably in this context for several hundred years.
      The book goes on to undermine its own argument by essentially admitting this, then driving a final nail into the coffin with a Biblical quote from the King James version (originally published in 1611, though this citation apparently comes from the 1769 Oxford edition):
      “The use of which for that is common in written and spoken language (‘Let us now go even to Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass.’) Occasionally which seems preferable to that, as in the sentence from the Bible. But it would be a convenience to all if these two pronouns were used with precision. Careful writers, watchful for small conveniences, go which-hunting, remove the defining whiches, and by so doing improve their work.”
      A convenience? For whom, pray tell? Perhaps for those who don’t have enough wit to set off a nonrestrictive clause with commas — now there’s an idea for a simple, effective rule. (Come to think of it, that’s more or less how Strunk presented it in his original version. The dictate against using which to introduce a relative restrictive clause is something White inserted into his old teacher’s text.)
      This is sheer nonsense — and damaging nonsense at that, since it’s inhibited so many writers who might otherwise have turned out more fluid prose, rather than performing vivisection on every questionable sentence in deference to Strunk & White’s (or just White’s, in this case) “small conveniences.”
      Besides that, the very language in that last passage disturbs me. Which-hunts? Lady spare me from self-righteous English teachers who persist in using this phrase. Among my kith and kin such terminology smacks of an only marginally clever pun about lynching pagans. It wasn’t without some thoughtfulness that I referred to burnt heretics earlier.
      I’ll sum this up by saying that the British have no such inhibitive prejudice regarding that and which. But then, they weren’t breast-fed on Strunk & White.
      My second complaint may sound minor by comparison — even if it has impeded a lot of syntax over the years. However, it sticks in my craw.
      Here’s the pronouncement from The Elements of Style: “Avoid starting a sentence with however when the meaning is ‘nevertheless.’ ”
      Again…why? What logic or orthodoxy determines that nevertheless is somehow kosher or halal at the beginning of a sentence, but however is not? Well, here’s their explanation: “The word usually serves better when not in first position.”
      And perhaps it sometimes does — but that’s a value judgment, incumbent upon the writer. In fact, quite a few excellent writers have violated this “rule.” According to Liberman, Mark Twain placed the adverb however in the initial position approximately twice as often as he put it after the subject.
      And my money’s on Twain.
      Put it this way:
      Were you to religiously follow every dictate given in The Elements of Style, your writing wouldn’t be irreparably damaged by the practice. In fact, it would quite likely be improved.
      Simply because you’ve found a doctrine which gives you personal comfort, however, doesn’t mean you ought to become a missionary about it, zealously converting others to your faith. An unquestioning belief that your creed is invariably “right” automatically implies that other — sometimes better — writers who don’t wholeheartedly share your viewpoint are, therefore, “wrong.” Adopting Strunk & White as the final arbiter of every question might cause you to dismiss these “schismatics” as inferior. Mark Twain, for instance…and most of the population of the British Commonwealth.
      In short, I sincerely recommend that you own a copy of The Elements of Style — and not just in self-defense. Read it thoroughly (one of its merits is its brevity)…yet objectively. And take away from the experience every improvement to your writing that you can. But also take it with a grain of salt.
      Then be prepared to eloquently justify your every objection, to any English teacher or publisher you might encounter…for the rest of your life. (Since they sometimes see their grammatical role more as Grand Inquisitor than educator or editor.) Perhaps this small article will be of some help.  
      And perhaps I should close it with a few words from William Strunk, Jr. — those he used to conclude the introduction to the 1918 edition of his own work (long before his student, E. B. White, saw fit to revise it):

It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.

      I doubt I could have said it better.



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