“Elements of Style”: 50 years of debate

Posted on April 21, 2010

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As someone who makes his living working with words, there is no better guidebook to the murky depths of the English language than “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. I bring this up because April 16th is the 50th anniversary of the first commercial publishing run of the book. By the way, yes that is E. B. White, author of “Charlotte’s Web” and is possibly the best essayist to use the English language. Billed as a “forty-three-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English” its advice ranges from the terse and obtuse, “omit needless words” to the proper use of English grammar, “Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation” while cleaning up the trash, “Enormity. Use only in the sense of ‘monstrous wickedness.’ Misleading, if not wrong, when used to express bigness.”

As someone who failed his grammar exams, studied languages in university and whose own writing often shows a flagrant disregard for decent usage of American English, this is a wonderful book. I try to page through it at least once a year. One of my proofreading exercises is to pick a rule from the book and check my document to make sure it conforms. In my opinion, this book should be read by any student of anything who will write something at one point in time. Its lessons are timeless. However, not everyone shares my love for this book.

Geoffrey Pollum is a noted critic of the book. In this article for the Chronical, he writes:

So I won’t be spending the month of April toasting 50 years of the overopinionated and underinformed little book that put so many people in this unhappy state of grammatical angst. I’ve spent too much of my scholarly life studying English grammar in a serious way. 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.

If you want to read more about his blind hatred for this book, here is a blog post where he wishes he could convince people to burn them. Read the comments. Go ahead. At one point he says that he thinks the title “Grammarian” is one of the highest honors that you can receive. Go ahead. Call me a Grammarian. See what happens. Unfortunately, I think that Pollum has missed the point of the book. He has forgotten the golden rule of writing: “Rules are meant to be broken.” No one ever became a good writer, either academic or fiction, by obeying all the rules. In addition, these are meant to be a set of guidelines that encourages us to think about the words we use, and to use them effectively and with style. The one point he makes is that, if you are serious about getting your English right, there is no better resource that Henry Fowler’s “Dictionary of Modern Usage”, of which I own both the English and American versions. I find it ironic that Pollum argues that the ‘Elements’ is too prescriptive and then offers as a substitute a dictionary. Not to disparage Fowler’s work. It’s great stuff, but its lessons are nowhere near as universally applicable.

Pollum is not going to change my mind, and I doubt that I will change the mind of a professor of linguistics at Edinburgh University. Take my word, as someone who actually writes instead of teaching or learning about writing, that this book will give you the tools you need to write with style. Here it is online, if you’re at all interested and are also poor/lazy. I have the illustrated version (It makes a great gift for a recent graduate btw). Remember, like Buddha said “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”

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