Out of My Element: Digging In to Strunk and White and Coming Up Mostly Empty

Dragonfly’s Deputy Editorial Manager offers an honest assessment of Strunk and White’s time-honored manual for good writing.

In almost 30 years as a student and practitioner of editing and writing, I’ve come across countless people who pledge allegiance to a small but revered book called “The Elements of Style.” Some of these people are professional writers and editors themselves; in my experience, most are not.

I have a confession: Until recently, I had never read more than a few sentences from “The Elements of Style.” As an editor, I’m always required to follow an actual style manual, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, the Associated Press Stylebook, or the American Psychological Association Publication Manual. No client has ever asked me to punctuate sentences or format references according to “The Elements of Style.”

I could have read it for personal enrichment, but, based on what I’d heard about it, I didn’t think it was for me. It’s often quoted by stubborn old goats who insist the English language ought to be an immovable object, that there was some golden age when everyone was a better writer, and that kids today are ruining the language. These are the pedants who shout, to anyone who will listen, “The rules are there for a reason!” They’re the kind of people I’d rather not talk to at a party.

It occurred to me recently that I shouldn’t judge these people by their favorite book, nor should I judge their favorite book by its cover. So, I sat down and read “The Elements of Style.”

A brief history

The original version of “The Elements of Style” was self-published in 1918 by Cornell English professor William Strunk Jr. Years later, after Strunk died, one of his former students,  E. B. White (author of, among other works, “Charlotte’s Web”), was commissioned to revise the book. That version, with both names on the cover, came out in 1959, and White would forever be known as Strunk’s co-author, even though they never worked side by side. 

The 1959 book was the first edition of what is now known as “Strunk and White.” Subsequent editions were published in 1972, 1979, and 1999. It was this 1999 edition — the fourth and most recent, published 14 years after White’s death and allegedly revised by some editors — that I read.

The good

I was pleasantly surprised to learn there’s stuff to appreciate in “The Elements of Style.” The first chapter, for example, presents nuts-and-bolts rules for punctuation, possessives, subject-verb agreement, and pronoun case (subject vs. object).

The comma advice is succinct, with clear examples. The possessives guidance includes several confusing exceptions, but possessives can get confusing, so I’ll give them a pass. The subject-verb agreement and pronoun case sections are thorough, adeptly covering many gray areas.

After they get the basics out of the way, the real advice Strunk and White are known for begins, and some of it is fine. They instruct writers to plan the structure of their writing before beginning to write, a sound recommendation for most beginners. They advise against sentence fragments in general but concede that fragments can be used judiciously for effect, a balanced viewpoint I wasn’t expecting.

They write, “Revising is part of writing. Few writers are expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try.” Great advice. They tell us to hyphenate compound modifiers, which is useful. They also tell us to hyphenate “water-fowl,” which might have seemed useful at one time, although I’m not sure how.

Strunk and White say we should “use definite, specific, concrete language” over vague language. For example, instead of “unfavorable weather,” write “rain” or “snow” or “cold winds,” as the case may be. They instruct us how to identify and avoid misplaced modifiers. They go on about how the greatest writers paint visuals with definite details and concrete terms, and they encourage us to be more like those writers. Fair enough.

The advice I hear Strunk and White fans quote most often is “omit needless words.” Strunk and White do indeed argue for vigorous, concise writing in which every word matters. I agree with this, for the most part. For example, they suggest changing “in a hasty manner” to “hastily” and changing “the reason why is that” to “because.” Those are fine choices.

They also suggest shortening “he is a man who” to “he.” I’d say such an edit would work under certain circumstances, say in business writing. In creative writing, if the writer is trying to achieve a particular effect, why can’t they write “he is a man who”? Why ruthlessly strip the writing of personal flavor?

Here is where I begin to take issue.

The inconsistent

Strunk and White give some bad advice. I mean, really bad. But before we get to that, let’s talk about their penchant for conflicting advice.

For example, when describing how best to construct a paragraph, Strunk and White write, “A paragraph may be of any length — a single, short sentence or a passage of great duration.” But further down the page, this appears: “As a rule, single sentences should not be printed or written as paragraphs.” Later, they write, “Enormous blocks of print look formidable to readers” and suggest breaking up large paragraphs — although they add that too many short paragraphs can be distracting.

Maybe they’re trying to convey the reality that different situations call for different paragraph structures and lengths. Instead, it all comes off as a wishy-washy mess.

Here’s another gem: Avoid a succession of loose sentences. Where they got the term “loose sentences” is a mystery, but their point is that we shouldn’t give every sentence the same structure as the sentence before it and the sentence after it. Mix it up. 

A few pages later, however, they tell us that consecutive clauses must be parallel in form. They write: “The unskilled writer often violates this principle, mistakenly believing in the value of constantly varying the form of expression.” I’d argue that such a writer might not be unskilled — perhaps they’re trying to adhere to the rule Strunk and White stated a few pages prior.

Likewise, in Chapter 5, after we’ve endured a list of which words we should and shouldn’t use, we find this nugget: “Write in a way that comes naturally to you, using words and phrases that come readily to hand.”

The contradictions continue:

      • On one page: “The proper place in the sentence for the word or group of words that the writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end.” On the very next page: “The other prominent position in the sentence is the beginning.”

      • On another page: “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.” A few lines later: “This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech.”

      • They say to use numerals for dates in most circumstances. Immediately after that, they say to spell out all numbers, including dates, when used in dialogue, with no explanation.

    The ugly

    In White’s introduction, he celebrates Strunk’s strictness, referring to him as “Sergeant Strunk” at one point. White laments that no writer could ever live up to Strunk’s exacting standards and that he himself has been guilty of violating Strunk’s rules at many points in his career.

    I’d say White, easily the more successful writer commercially, should trust his instincts when breaking Strunk’s rules. I’ll share with you the rules I disagree with, from those that are outdated to those that are merely puzzling to those that are downright damaging. This will be the longest section.

    Outdated

    Chapter 4 covers commonly misused words and expressions. Some are classics, such as “can” vs. “may” and “lay” vs. “lie.” Others are less commonly taught distinctions, such as “among” vs. “between” and “compare to” vs. “compare with.”

    But then there’s the old insistence that “hopefully” may be used only to mean “with hope” and never to mean “it is hoped,” a law that all but the most hardcore pedants have left behind. The same goes for “nauseous” vs. “nauseated” and the idea that “enormity” is always negative. Common folks are unaware of these old rules, and among those who are aware, hardly anyone clings to them. They no longer serve a practical purpose.

    Other antiquated advice includes the old chestnut that “contact” should be used as a noun only, not a verb. They recommend using “get in touch with” instead. (So much for omitting needless words.) They nix the use of “people” after a number, saying “persons” should be used instead, a rule that Merriam-Webster says has fallen out of favor in the last few decades. They also tell us that “presently” means “soon” — that it cannot mean “currently.” Some sticklers love this one, even though English speakers have used “presently” to mean “currently” since the 15th century.

    Perhaps the worst of the outdated entries concerns pronouns and gender. Strunk and White instruct us to use “he” to refer to all genders, “a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language. … no one fear to use ‘he’ if common sense supports it.”  They grudgingly acknowledge “she” is also an option: “If you think ‘she’ is a handy substitute for ‘he,’ try it and see what happens.” Let’s remember that the fourth edition came out in 1999, not 1959.

    As one could expect, Strunk and White also object to singular “they” — which, at the time of Strunk’s original work, had been in use for at least 700 years.

    Puzzling

    Then there are the bizarre rules, some of which I’ve heard whispers of elsewhere, some of which were complete news to me.

    For example, Strunk and White have a strange relationship with the word “not.” They instruct writers to use it “as a means of denial or antithesis, never as a means of evasion.” I’m not sure (I mean I’m unsure?) what that even means, but their first example says to change “He was not very often on time” to “He usually came late.” While I’d probably delete “very” from the first sentence, I don’t see the need for further edits.

    Additionally, Strunk and White claim the following:

        • “Clever” has distinct meanings depending on whether we’re applying it to people or horses.

        • Avoid “host” and “debut” as verbs.

        • Conversely, use “thrust” almost exclusively as a verb, sparingly as a noun. 

        • Avoid the following words, for no reason other than Strunk and White’s dislike of them: facility, finalize, importantly, meaningful, overly, prestigious, prioritize.

      While you could surely write sentences in which any of the above words are unnecessary, ambiguous, or misused, there’s no reason to strictly limit their use or strike them entirely from your work.

      Damaging

      The worst stuff is almost laughable for an experienced writer or editor, although I do fear some people still learning the craft will take it seriously.

      Take this, for example: “You must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader’s wants. Your duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one.”

      I’m sorry, what? Satisfy yourself and forget about the reader’s wants? I thought that was a joke at first, but I’m afraid it’s not.

      Then there are the many eye-rolling moments, such as when they bemoan the decline of the English language. They warn us that youths speak to other youths “in a tongue of their own devising” and that the “language of advertising” is full of “deliberate infractions of grammatical rules.” They warn ominously: “You will also, in all probability, want to try writing that way, using that language. You do so at your own peril, for it is the language of mutilation.”

      Strunk and White are entitled to their narrow-minded opinions in their personal lives, but such limitations on individualism and creativity have no place in a published writing guide. And “the language of mutilation” is a bit over the top.

      Speaking of over-the-top, unnecessarily harsh language, here are some other words Strunk and White use that I could do without:

          • “There is no defense for such punctuation.” 

          • “Sentences violating Rule 11 are often ludicrous.”

          • “Apart from its triteness and emptiness, the paragraph above is bad because of the structure of its sentences.”

        Finally, when addressing using “like” in a place where “as” might be more appropriate, Strunk and White turn fully classist: “‘Like’ has long been widely misused by the illiterate; lately it has been taken up by the knowing and the well-informed, who find it catchy, or liberating, and who use it as though they were slumming.”

        Ouch. Not a good look, Strunk and White.

        Redemption and revelations

        Despite much of the aforementioned garbage, “The Elements of Style” does have its redeeming qualities. Every so often, out of nowhere, they shift to an uncharacteristically progressive viewpoint.

        For instance, here’s some actual good advice from White’s introduction: “Style rules of this sort are, of course, somewhat a matter of individual preference, and even the established rules of grammar are open to challenge. Professor Strunk, although one of the most inflexible and choosy of men, was quick to acknowledge the fallacy of inflexibility and the danger of doctrine.”

        This is from the introductory paragraphs of Chapter 4: “The shape of our language is not rigid; in questions of usage we have no lawgiver whose word is final.” Great sentiment, but it renders the rest of the chapter’s content almost useless.

        Other advice that is refreshing because of its wisdom — but frustrating because Strunk and White seem to contradict it at every turn — includes the following:

            • “There is nothing wrong, really, with any word — all are good, but some are better than others.”

            • “No word in the English language can be dismissed offhand by anyone who has a healthy curiosity.”

            • “The language is perpetually in flux: it is a living stream, shifting, changing, receiving new strength from a thousand tributaries, losing old forms in the backwaters of time.”

          My most pleasant surprise, however, was the revelation that Strunk and White don’t subscribe to many of the classic commandments a lot of us learned in our middle-school English classes:

              • They denounce the “rigid decree” that we must not end a sentence in a preposition and say that prepositions are sometimes most effective when placed at the end.

              • They acknowledge that so-called split infinitives have existed for centuries and are permissible as long as they are used with care.

              • They do not forbid us to begin sentences with “and,” “but,” or “because.”

              • They recommend active voice in most situations but demonstrate when passive voice might be preferred. 

              • They say “none” can take either a singular or plural verb, depending on context.

            This left me wondering: Are the hardcore Strunk and White disciples aware of their heroes’ stance on the above zombie rules? Or do they mistakenly cite Strunk and White when defending those rules?

            Style without substance

            When we add up all the positives and negatives in “The Elements of Style,” we’re left with a goofy little book that is of almost no practical use. As I said before, if you’re a publishing professional, you’re likely required to follow a legitimate style manual. If you’re looking for a source to back up your belief that sentences should not end in prepositions, you’ll have to look elsewhere. If you’re looking for up-to-date English language guidance, there are plenty of better options.

            Those better options include any of the style manuals I mentioned in the second paragraph, Merriam-Webster (which is updated regularly), Garner’s Modern English Usage, and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU). Garner and MWDEU are especially useful because they explain what sticklers would call the standard rules but also present research-based evidence of how real people use the language every day. (That’s why they’re called “usage dictionaries.”) 

            There’s not much to like about the “Elements of Style.” Should the editors ever release a fifth edition, they’d be wise to heed Strunk and White’s most quoted advice: Omit needless words. Indeed. In the next revision, about 85% of the words could be omitted.

            A puzzled writer sits at a typewriter.

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