Author Topic: Throwing More Punches at the Venerable Strunk and White  (Read 9978 times)

Joe Carillo

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Throwing More Punches at the Venerable Strunk and White
« on: May 01, 2009, 06:16:15 AM »
On the 50th anniversary last April 24, 2009 of the publication of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, The New York Times ran a commemorative forum featuring five critiques of the book by as many present-day English grammar luminaries, namely:

•   “A Disservice to All” by Geoffrey K. Pullum, professor of linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, who, as I posted in this forum last April 13, had previously debunked the book in the April 17, 2009 issue of The Chronicle Review;
•   “We’ve Moved On” by Patricia T. O’Conner, author of the bestselling grammar book Woe is I;
•   “I’m Moving On” by Stephen Dodson, an editor and blogger at;
•   “A Matter of Style” by Ben Yagoda, author of The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing and When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It and professor of English at the University of Delaware; and
•   “Rules are Meant to be Broken” by Mignon Fogarty, creator of the “Grammar Girl” podcast and author of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

Here’s a link to that forum, “Happy Birthday, Strunk and White!”
The audacity and sometimes outright ferocity of these bashers of The Elements of Style have tempted me to resuscitate my own and much earlier take on the iconic book. I wrote it for my column, “English Plain and Simple,” in The Manila Times sometime in 2002, and it now forms part of my first English-usage book, English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language.

Here’s my 2002 piece on Strunk and White:

A Matter of Style

It is most unfortunate that the most popular and enduring book on English grammar, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, is a classic misnomer. Of course, there is no doubt that generations of would-be writers have greatly benefited from its wisdom since its publication in 1918, making it one of the 100 best-selling nonfiction books of all time. But this book is not a book primarily on writing style, but simply a basic English grammar manual, a list of words and expressions commonly misused, and a stylebook for the visual look of the printed word. Only much later—in 1957—did its latter-day co-author, E. B. White, add to the book an excellent 20-page chapter on style as an afterthought. Perhaps, then, the book should have been more appropriately entitled The Elements of Grammar.

Strunk and White certainly will help English learners craft correct and coherent sentences, and for that I commend the book heartily to everyone. I learned a lot myself from the slim, venerable volume, which validated in Spartan ways the grammars I learned in trickles since I was a little boy entranced by the strange forms and textures of English. But the book really does not purposively aspire to teach writing as an art form; for that we have to look for enlightenment elsewhere. I therefore find it sad that like me in the beginning, many of those who learn the book’s elementary precepts and nothing else could entertain the notion that they had adequately prepared themselves to become English-language writers. I think this probably explains why many people who swear by Strunk and White and get themselves published really have very little to offer beyond the basic ability to collect information and write grammatically correct but largely puerile sentences.

The truth of the matter is that writing style presupposes proficiency in English grammar, form, and structure; without this, style cannot exist at all. Style is much more complex than stringing words into sentences and cobbling sentences to form paragraphs. Its true elements are word choice, sentence form and structure, tone, and attitude. More learned people call these elements the aesthetics, poetics, and logics of writing, but it is incredible how their supposedly rigorous application in academe often produces some of the most sterile, insipid, and anaesthetic writing on this planet. In any case, it is through these elements that writers can convey information about a subject and their feelings and attitudes about it. Through them, writers can establish a fruitful, silent dialogue with the reader. Style is, in fact, simply the final outcome of these elements, the projection of the writer himself in words and the true measure of his confidence, imagination, and creativity.

Of the elements of style, word choice is undoubtedly the most powerful. A wide vocabulary can greatly add to this power, of course, but it is a myth that this wideness alone will make anyone a good writer. There are today over 200,000 basic English words, and it has been estimated that William Shakespeare in his time had used only around 30,000, yet almost 600 years later these words still speak to us compellingly about the human condition. This is clear proof that more important than vocabulary is the writer’s purposive use of words not for their own sake, but to elicit predetermined responses from the reader. A writer thus cannot achieve felicity of style unless he knows the precise meaning and tonalities of words, their connotations, and the emotional tags that usually go with them.

Next among the elements is sentence form and structure. It is how the writer manages his words and sentences to convey his thoughts and feelings to the reader. This is actually the creative part of writing, a process that calls into play both the imagination and personality of the writer, and it would be a mistake to think of creativity as the domain solely of literary writing. It is needed even in the most simple memos, personal correspondence, and newspaper feature articles. And it must be kept in mind that although the most successful writers use plain and simple English, there is actually no standard for simplicity or complexity in writing. What matters most is the sensibility, variety, and cohesiveness that a writer puts into his written work.

Tone and attitude, the two other elements, always work together. They constitute the voice of the writer in conveying his thoughts and feelings to the reader, in much the same way that speakers use inflection, volume, or gestures to make their point to their listeners. Unfortunately, this is the most neglected of the elements of style, resulting in too much unfocused, imprecise, and misdirected writing most everywhere we look.

A common mistake is that people try too hard to write stylishly, aiming for style for style’s sake, which is actually a ridiculous thing. Writing should come across simply and naturally as a genuine expression of the writer’s mind. Those who achieve greatness in their writing are, in fact, those who are inspired by their subject, and whose inspiration shines in the very words that quietly flow out of them in magical communion with the unseen reader.

From English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language © 2004 by Jose A. Carillo. Copyright 2008 by The Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: May 01, 2009, 06:29:43 AM by Joe Carillo »