Connectives Home    Thus Strunk the Prophet

Where do you turn for help when writing gets difficult? To a book of course, but which book? Strunk and White's Elements of Style is among the best known of hundreds of books about English writing and English language, but not necessarily because it's the most useful to a reluctant writer. Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist, and Thomas McCormack, an editor of fiction, offer deeper information about how writing works. Gary and Glynis Hoffman's Adios Strunk and White is a handbook of writing for the 2000s.

If you don't live in the USA, you might never have heard of the book the Americans call "Strunk&White" (Elements of Style). If you do live in the USA, you might be surprised to know that the rest of the English-writing world gets along quite comprehensibly without ever meeting Strunk&White. And if your English is not US English and you need a reference for US English conventions, you might wonder whether the literate and humorous American who recommended Strunk&White was pulling your leg or suffering from particularly acute jetlag. Why do so many thousands of Americans say that this arbitrary and pugnacious pamphlet is the ultimate guide to good English writing?

The Little Book (Strunk's name for it, though the capitals are usually understood) first appeared 1918 at Cornell University. It was written by Professor William Strunk Jr. "for use in English courses in which the practice of composition is combined with the study of literature". Strunk updated the little book for general release in 1935 (hence Strunk&White) and E. B. White updated it again and expanded it for a third edition in 1975 and for subsequent revisions. A fourth edition, further updated and further expanded, has just been released. With a hard cover version.

Strunk's book had 17 major topics, each summarised by a heading in the form of a command: commands like "A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject" (Rule 7), and "Use the active voice" (Rule 11). I'd guess that in typescript it probably came to about 80 pages, but the headings, or rules, can fit on a single sheet. You could even embroider them onto fine linen and frame them like biblical texts.

And there lies the core of the mystery: Strunk's Rule 15, excised from its context and framed on countless writers' walls. "Omit needless words." OH-MIT NEEDless WORDS. Sounds like Om Mane Padme Om doesn't it? Or the musical phrase that established communication between humans and aliens in Speilberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"? So La Fa La Do. Oh-mit need-less words.

No wonder Strunk used to chant it three times to his students. It's not a rule. It's poetry. And no wonder the book is expanding into hard cover. It's not expansion. It's exegesis.

Unfortunately, it seems that many who quote the texts don't read the word of Strunk. The command "Use the active voice" heads an uncontroversial discussion of the appropriate use of passive and active constructions. But it's cited in support of a taboo on the passive so strong that many U.S.-trained professional writers avert their eyes and make the sign of Delete whenever they encounter the word "is". That's not respect for authority. It's superstition.

Strunk&White was written as a guide to students and in reaction to the common problems of its day. Nearly 100 years after the first version of Strunk's little book, Adios Strunk and White (Gary and Glynis Hoffman) is also intended as a guide to students, but these students have different problems from those who annoyed Strunk.

The Hoffmans have found that their students need both theory and practice in "the tools which professional writers have tested for decades, not the ones teachers have turned into painful dogma"(p.7). They do not blame Strunk&White for the dogma, but they point out that "in the last part of the twentieth century, written expression has expanded further than either Strunk or White could have dreamt of in their instructional philosophies. The rules for the twenty-first century need to be recreated and they demand new explanations, especially for a more visual-oriented, computer-literate, cyberspace-writing generation" (p.10).

Their solution is to invent a terminology that labels the effects, rather than the mechanics, of rhetorical techniques, and to demonstrate each term in examples from published and student essays. The result is fascinating. Like Strunk&White, Adios Strunk and White is divided into sections that look at the craft of writing from different levels; unlike Strunk&White, the Hoffman's book is comprehensive, undogmatic, and evocative. I bought it because the title filled me with glee; I keep it on my desk because I find the content valuable.

Steven Pinker's popular science books are not intended just for people who need to write, but for anyone who's interested in language. Pinker is a cognitive scientist, someone who studies how thinking machines, both meat and metal, work. He also writes with the seductive skill of an airport novelist. His two books on language, The Language Instinct and Words and Rules, provide an entertaining and informative overview of one school of thought about how people really understand and use language.

Whether or not Pinker and the "computational theory of mind" are right, the chapters "Talking Heads" and "How Language Works" in The Language Instinct are more useful to someone struggling with an unwieldy sentence than a rule about dangling phrases. Yet these chapters aren't even specifically about English. Instead they're about people and how we recognise meaning from language. They help a writer implement a fundamental principle: readers matter most.

Pinker cites Joseph Williams' Style: Toward Clarity and Grace as a guide to English usage based firmly on empirical research into how people understand language. He lists Clarity and Grace with Strunk&White among the "excellent manuals of composition that discuss ... skills with great wisdom". I'm reluctant to do that. I don't doubt that Strunk found his students' persistently muddled apostrophes their most irritating fault, but irritation doesn't justify setting up Form the possessive singular of nouns with ’s as the First Rule of English Usage.

Strunk&White is poorly served by its worshippers. Read in full, it's a handy enough set of rules that help a writer avoid some common ways to inadvertently confuse or mislead readers who are accustomed to U.S. English. But neither Strunk nor White claimed, as some reviewers do, that it's the only reference you'll ever need or that the rules contain all the wisdom of the book. They don't; they're memory joggers, useless until the principles have been remembered and absorbed.

Samuel Johnson, who compiled one of the first popular dictionaries of English, was as irascible as William Strunk and in some of his definitions was just as idiosyncratic. They both knew the joy that good writing can give to readers and to writers, and Strunk surely expected his students to read and refer far beyond the Little Book. He probably also knew Johnson's admirably concise summary of the writer's life:

The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.


December 2000

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