Why you should ignore Strunk and White (and other writing advice)…mostly
The Elements of Style, by Will Strunk and E.B. White, has been the Bible of English style for two generations. The book provides all sorts of advice, including the now famous dictum “Omit needless words!” as well as the rule of using ‘s after all words to make them possessive, with the exceptions of Jesus, Moses, and other ancient names, which only warrant an apostrophe. While several of the book’s points are well-founded, it also has more than its share of absurdities. Recently coming across several other lists of writing tips from famous authors, it seems that the majority of them are full to the brim with ridiculous rules and suggestions.
So last night I went looking for my copy of Strunk and White in order to denounce it. To my great consternation, my copy of this little book had been stolen! My wife apparently took it to school, where, as an English teacher, she supposedly has some use for it. I am deeply skeptical. (She claims to have had it at school for a year. Apart from my skepticism, she is also violating the role of a private library as a working tool, as outlined in a previous post.) But not to worry, I have several other works that refer to the book extensively, so there is still plenty of material for my diatribe.
The problem with many of these style guides is that “good” style changes dramatically with time. As languages change, so to do the expectations of readers and the way in which words are best able to communicate their intended purpose. What one style guide says is best in 1959 (when The Elements of Style was first published) may not apply today. That said, many of the most basic suggestions from Strunk and White are still worth following:
- “Omit needless words,”
- “Do not join independent clauses by a comma.”
- “Use the active voice.”
These are all legitimate pieces of advice that are likely to improve the readability of any text. But other rules come across as attempts to create laws out of pet peeves:
- Spell out dates in quotations (e.g., “August ninth”) but not when the author is using a date (August 9th)
- Use “which” for nonrestrictive clauses and “that” for restrictive clauses
- Only use “hopefully” to mean “in a hopeful way” rather than the more common usage
- Do not use “claim” as a substitute for declare, maintain, or charge
- Do not use “due to” to mean “through, because of, or owing to”
Such rules are utter nonsense, and are based entirely on a prescriptivist desire to keep language from changing, to maintain “purity.” These types of rules are all predicated on the understanding that whenever the rules are being written down (say, in 1959), that era’s language is the way the language ought to be. But since language is constantly changing, any such claim is absurd, for there was always an earlier, “purer” language from which the current manifestation evolved. While some standards tend to last through the ages, such as concision, petty proscriptions of definitions which have crept into new areas, such as with “claim” or “due to” above, are bound to be ignored by the masses as the new definitions become part of the next generation’s idea of “pure” language.
The wonderful website Brain Pickings recently posted some other writing tips from long dead writers. Here are selections from the twenty most common writing mistakes in the eyes of HP Lovecraft, sci-fi and fantasy author, in 1920:
- “Barbarous compound nouns, as viewpoint or upkeep”
- “Use of nouns for verbs, as ‘he motored to Boston,’ or ‘he voiced a protest.’”
- “Errors in moods and tenses of verbs, as ‘If I was he, I should do otherwise,’ or ‘He said the earth was round.’”
- “False verb-forms, as ‘I pled with him.’”
- “Use of words in wrong senses, as ‘The book greatly intrigued me,’ ‘Leave me take this,’ ‘He was obsessed with the idea,’ or ‘He is a meticulous writer.’”
I too would call “viewpoint” barbarous. Only pirates use that word, in my experience. Of course, we say many of the other things forbidden in this list, and no one in his right mind would correct them. In fact, the dictionary now even includes “pled” as a perfectly endorsed past tense of “to plead.” Were he still alive today (check out that subjunctive, Lovecraft!), I bet Lovecraft would have started a petition to undo the deleterious effects of google’s entry into the dictionary as a verb.
Some of the most famous stylistic rules are in fact vestiges of other languages that need not apply in English at all. For instance, the injunction against split infinitives, as “to quickly run” or “to fervently believe,” is based on a former incarnation of the idea of a “pure” language. Back in the day, many believed Latin to be the perfect language. In Latin it is impossible to put anything in between the two components of an infinitive (“to” and “run,” for instance) because infinitives were a single word (“to run” in Latin is “currere”). Great English writers have ignored this rule in every century since the 1300s.
Another oft-cited rule is to never end a sentence with a preposition. John Dryden, in 1672, apparently criticized Shakespeare-contemporary Ben Jonson for such a sin, and it has been brought up in every generation since then. Once again, this construction is impossible in Latin, and Dryden was known to first write in Latin, as he thought it the superior language, and then translate into English, explaining his opposition to dangling prepositions. But there is no sensible reason to follow such a rule, and, again, great writers and even very large newspapers like the New York Times have routinely ignored this rule.
The list of erroneous rules and suggestions for writing could go on and on. In every age, writers think that their own writing is the height of language, but every new age heralds new feats of language and writing that add new dimensions to the English repertoire. In their better moments, many of the same rule-wielding writers quoted above still saw the larger picture. So after having bashed their many pieces of bad advice, here are a few sage comments worth considering:
“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.”
- E.B. White, in one of his better moment – Essays of E.B. White, 325
“All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading, and the learner must never cease to hold this phase uppermost. In many cases, the usage of good authors will be found a more effective guide than any amount of precept. A page of Addison or of Irving will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook.”
- H.P. Lovecraft, from the article on Brain Pickings
“If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.”
- John Steinbeck, another article from Brain Pickings