Strunk and White debunked


E.B. White first encountered The Elements of Style at Cornell in 1919, when it was self-published by the precise and aging hand of his English professor, William Strunk Jr. White revised the book in 1959, and commenced to counsel and derange generations of writers.

When I assigned the fourth edition of the slim silver volume to my class, I had to look closer. And I was surprised. Instead of acting as an extension of Professor Strunk’s knobby finger, explaining with cold clarity at which point to use “who” and when “whom,” many of the book’s supposed rules are merely suggestions. Perhaps even more delightful, the book rarely takes itself seriously.

So why do so many writers?

To straighten the record and lighten your mood, I give you:

Three myths about Strunk and White

Myth #1: It’s stuffy and outdated.

Au contraire. Some of the examples make me LOL, while others border on X-rated. Turn to the section “Misused Words and Expressions.” Look up nauseous vs. nauseating. The book counsels readers not to say you feel nauseous “unless you are sure you have that effect on others.”

Then there’s the example on page 29, in which the reader sees an example of keeping related words together for optimum clarity:

Example 1:
“New York’s first commercial human-sperm bank opened Friday with semen samples from eighteen men frozen in a stainless steel tank.”

Example 2:
“New York’s first commercial human-sperm bank opened Friday when semen samples were taken from eighteen men. The samples were then frozen and stored in a stainless steel tank.”

The first example doesn’t quite cut it, the book says, and oh how “the reader’s heart goes out to those eighteen poor fellows frozen in a steel tank.”

In addition, the authors waste little time on distinctions like “who” vs. “whom.” Following a section on the correct use of “will” and “shall,” they point out that “In relaxed speech, however, the words…are seldom used precisely.”

Myth #2: S & W says the passive voice should not be used

Item 14 of the “Principles of Composition” section advises us that the active voice is “usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.” Therefore, “My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me” comes out pretty drab and awkward. Yet the book concedes that the passive comes in handy. Anyone who has written a memo explaining that work was not completed on time understands that one.

Myth #3: Everything in S & W will make you a better writer

Take the section on “However” in the “Misused Words and Expressions” section. At the beginning of a sentence, apparently, the word means “in whatever way.” Therefore, you should avoid this usage at all costs. But imagine writing “We appreciate your offer to write for our alumni magazine at a fee of $500 per word. I hate to break it to you, however, that our writing force is entirely volunteer.” Sometimes, you just need that little connector at the beginning.

Drawing from “nauseous” vs. “nauseating” again, did you know that “nauseous” actually means causing feelings of nausea? No? That’s okay, because neither do any of your readers. Don’t worry about it.

I’ll give you one more: S & W counsel against the use of the serial comma. But I say that the extra punctuation mark before a conjunction can help you avoid embarrassing ambiguities, especially in matters of world leaders and strippers.

Strunk and White contains nearly 100 pages of writing rules. Yet the closing section reminds us (emphasis authors’), “style is the writer, and therefore what you are, rather than what you know, will at last determine your style.”

Photo: The writer takes another look at Strunk and White. Picture by Marji Yablon.


Filed under Community of writers, Humor, Language

3 responses to “Strunk and White debunked

  1. Critics of The Elements of Style (such as Geoffrey Pullum) seem to miss the book’s humor entirely. Your examples here are especially good ones.

    How did your students respond to the book?

  2. Paul Kittredge

    Nice picture, Rhea! And a nice article. I disagree about the serial comma, of course (read the comments on the link you provided, and you’ll see you can skin that cat either way) – but I’m glad Strunk and White still has a few other supporters (for the most part).

  3. Lilah

    Thank you for validating my appreciation of both Strunk & White and the oxford comma (and for lightening my mood)!

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