Review: The Elements of Style

The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White


If you are a person who enjoys schadenfreude, like myself, there is something particularly sweet about the critical resistance of teenage artists. Back in the early aughts, you couldn’t swing a cat at DeviantArt without hitting at least five kids who defended their poor proportions and sloppy linework as their style. Ah, the hubris of youth. Of course, I wasn’t spared from this phenomenon during the Wombat Years. I was going to be A WRITER (with A DAY JOB because WRITERS made SQUAT, according to my careful research), but the idea of actually honing my craft raised my hackles even further than usual. Any grammatical errors were my style, man, get off my back! Mercifully for both me and everyone around me, the Wombat Years eventually ended, leaving me fully capable to absorb something like The Elements of Style for publishing camp.

The Elements of Style began life in 1918, when Cornell University English professor William Strunk, Jr., wrote it and published it for the use of his students. After E. B. White wrote a feature in The New Yorker about “the little book” (as Strunk called it) in 1957, Macmillian and Company approached him about updating it for a wider release. White did so, adding a chapter about his own approach to writing style to the lists, rules, and other strictures Strunk put forward. The “little book” is now in its fourth edition; I read the third.

While I consider myself a bit all over the place, academically, I still have a soft spot for ornery old men bent on organizing increasingly abstract ideas in increasingly rigorous ways. (I will someday be an ornery crone doing the same thing.) It’s why I love the story about J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis plotting to ban anything written after 1850 from the Oxford syllabus and succeeding. Hearing, in White’s introduction, about Strunk trying to drill his own rules into his undoubtedly glassy-eyed students invoked the same fondness from me.

Strunk’s approach towards style is grumpily affable. These rules are not meant to be an excuse to lord your “correct” grammar over other human beings and feel superior to them. At one point, Strunk forbids the reader from rendering colloquialisms or dialect in quotation marks. “To do so is to put on airs, as though you were inviting the reader to join you in a select society of those who know better,” he chides (34). Instead, it’s about clarity. While English is a living, breathing thing, we’ve also agreed that certain words mean certain things. Those rules need to be respected, because without them, what have you got? (This is similar to what I yell at drivers that run through red lights.) Thus, Strunk’s chapter “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused”, complete with helpful examples to aid the reader in keeping “farther” and “further” straight. Clarity is the goal, because, as he points out, miscommunication can be a literal killer.

As in any other art, one must first know the rules of their chosen medium before they can break them. (This is the lesson our teenage artists must learn.) To those who believe they can, Strunk has this to say:

“But,” the student may ask, “what if it comes natural to me to experiment rather than conform? What if I am a pioneer, or even a genius?” Answer: then be one. But do not forget that what may seem like pioneering may be merely evasion, or laziness—the disinclination to submit to discipline. Writing good standard English is no cinch, and before you have managed it you will have encountered enough rough country to satisfy even the most adventurous spirit. (84)

I appreciate Strunk’s value-neutral approach, especially because the concept of “correct” English is so often used as a discriminant. Of course, his historical context shows when he talks about what to do when you want a gender-neutral pronoun. Strunk insists that “he” is the correct one, having lost any connotations of gender. That’s, um, that’s… well, my notes simply say, “hahahaha no”. What is fascinating about how people use language is how their worldview slips in. Strunk (and, by association, White) can say that “he” is now an ungendered pronoun, but there’s no escaping the impression that both men seem to be writing for other men, always defaulting to the masculine. It’s not overt, nor do I think either man would say he did it on purpose, but it is there, quiet and present. And that’s why clear language is so important; so we can see the write right down to their beliefs.

Bottom line: The Elements of Style lays out the basic guidelines for clear writing simply and in a determinedly value-neutral way, although a few things do slip in. An extraordinarily useful guide.

I bought this book from a thrift store.

5 thoughts on “Review: The Elements of Style

  1. Aw, I really like that quote about putting on airs. I have to say I’ve never been tempted to read this – I’m too much of a Geoff Pullum fan, and none of my linguistics profs were very keen on Strunk and White – but you made me want to give it a go.

    “What is fascinating about how people use language is how their worldview slips in.”

    Yeeeees. This is why I’ll always be a sociolinguistics fangirl at heart.

  2. I read this as a senior in high school, and it was invaluable in helping me write clean, clear prose without a lot of extra fol-de-rol I once thought was necessary to sound smart. These days, though, my relationship with it is more fraught. I’ve encountered far too many people who treat some of their guidelines (mostly, omit needless words and avoid the passive voice) as hard-and-fast rules that must never be broken, which makes me cranky about Strunk and White’s status, even when its a strict and thoughtless enforcement of their ideas that bugs me. I prefer to think of their guidelines as points to keep in mind. And a lot of their thoughts about clarity are spot on.

  3. Pingback: Review: Editors on Editing | The Literary Omnivore

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