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Some introductory thoughts about Strunk and White

Peer review is underway for the ancient style and YouTube project! But you all know that.  You should be wrapping that up on Wednesday of this week.

Now it’s time to start talking about the readings with the next unit, and we’re starting with Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Be sure to write your own impressions about Strunk and White in blog post #7, too!

William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style is more or less the “grand-daddy” of style and grammar books of the 20th and 21st century. I would contend that every writing and grammar handbook used in a composition/rhetoric course for the last 50 or so years owes its origins to Strunk and White’s “little book.” Or, another way of looking at it, Strunk and White’s book has managed to inflict itself on writing and style in ways that are hard to escape.

Who was E.B. White and William Strunk? And where did this book come from, anyway?

  • E.B. White is probably best known for Charlotte’s Web, but he wrote many other things and worked for The New Yorker magazine for years. In a lot of ways, he revitalized the genre of “the personal essay.” In short, he was very much a professional writer. White died in 1985, fifteen years before the fourth edition of the book was published.
  • William Strunk Jr. was a professor at Cornell University. White took a class from him in 1919 that was probably sort of like first year composition. Back then, we learn from White’s introduction, Strunk self-published The Elements of Style, and it seems to have been sort of like a coursepack that focused on “rules of usage.” See this link, which is to the original 1919 version of the book.
  • Strunk seems to have been a bit of a, well, “character.” Note White’s description at the bottom of pages xvi and the top of xvii (in the fourth edition).
  • Strunk died in 1947, and, after a popular article in The New Yorker, White came out with an edition in 1959. The rest, as they say, is history.

A few highlights for me as a reader

I don’t want to bias you too much in your blog post thoughts, but here are a few highlights from my own notes about Strunk and White:

  • Starting with page 1: it’s always seemed odd to me that Strunk and White start with this rule, possessive s. For one thing, S&W’s interpretation is perhaps debatable– is it Charles’s house or Charles’ house? But beyond that, it seems to me that a book like this is arranged (at least in part) according to priority. Is possessive s that big of a deal?
  • Rule #5 on page 5: To me, this is such a commonly broken rule that I suspect it is no longer as much of a “rule” as it once was. I agree with S&W that it should be a rule, but I see a lot of advertisements and signs that break this rule all the time.
  • One of my favorite rules (yes, I do have favorite S&W rules! doesn’t everyone?!) is on page 34 in part 3 about exclamation points. I can’t remember who said it, but you can’t make a piece of writing exciting with punctuation. So be careful! About using! Exclamation! Points!
  • A lot of the advice offered in Part IV, “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused” strikes me as kind of odd in a way. True, S&W encourage readers on page 39 to seek interpretations and advice from other sources if they have questions about the rules offered here, but S&W offer their rules with such certainty, they seem hard to question. And yet, a lot of these things in this chapter strike me as more about “pet peeves” as opposed to “rules” of “style.” For examples, see:
    • “contact”
    • “each and every one”
    • “flammable” (they seem especially cranky here about this)
    • “like”
  • The rule for “they, he, or she” is, for me, the most telling of the book. If you have the fourth edition (which most of you probably have), read the rules as described on pages 60 and 61 and compare them with the rules from the third edition of the book (which was published in 1979 and is available via eReserves; look for the file “Selections from The Elements of Style, 3rd Ed.”) and you will notice some significant differences. In the third edition, “He has lost all suggestions of maleness in these circumstances.” However, in the fourth edition, we are told that “many writers find the use of the generic he or his to rename indefinite antecedents limiting or offensive.” Curiously, these words were added long after both Strunk and White were dead.
  • A little more comparison between the different editions of the book and some critical examination of some the examples I’ve included will reveal some other telling differences between the current and past editions:
    • Note on page 29 that the author example is Wordsworth in the 3rd edition (British Romantic poet); it’s Toni Morrison (contemporary American African-American Woman novelist) in the 4th.
    • Page 51 the use of “they” (4th ed) versus “he” (3rd ed) in the example on “less.”
    • Also on page 51, the example of “like:” The 4th edition has the sentence “Chloë smells good, as a baby should.” This is sexist enough– why not “Jimmy smells good, as a baby should,” for example. But compare that to the 3rd edition: “Chloë smells good, as a pretty girl should.”
    • Finally, on page 54, the examples for the rule on “Noun used as a verb” are quite a bit different. The most notable for me is the last one under this heading. In the 4th edition, the last example is “The theatre troupe made its debut last fall.” In the 3rd edition, this example is “She made her debut last fall.” This is a quite different definition of the word “debut!”
  • Finally, there’s the last section of the book, “V. An Approach to Style.” Sure, in a sense, S&W are offering good advice here; but in another sense, it seems awfully vague here. And, as we’ll see when we read Williams, this vague advice doesn’t necessarily get us too far. As Williams writes on page 1 of his book, “Telling me to ‘Be clear’ is like telling me to ‘Hit the ball squarely.’ I know that. What I don’t know is how to do it.”

Posted in Class Readings.

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