9780205309023Who died and put Strunk and White in charge of the English language?

If you talk to anyone who takes the rules of grammar and usage seriously, the names Strunk and White are bound to come up. The Elements of Style, the “little book” that was originally self-published by Professor William Strunk, Jr. at Cornell University and then, fifty years ago, was edited and mass produced by his former student, E.B. White, has become the definitive authority for amateur grammarians.

Wondering what constitutes a split infinitive? Check Strunk and White. Need to know when to use a semicolon? Check Strunk and White. What’s the difference between “shall” and “will”? Check Strunk and White.

But where exactly does their authority come from?

On the one hand, it comes from the fact that the snobs who always correct you when you misuse the subjunctive mood and wince when you use “good” as an adverb generally worship at the alter of Strunk and White. Its brevity and sardonic tone (“Prestigious: Often an adjective of last resort. It’s in the dictionary, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it.”) help to make it handy for every show-off on the go.

Unfortunately, these sometimes seem to be the only grammar-fans left (they are at least the most vocal, the unsilent minority, if you will). Grammar, usage and linguistic rules are taught less in school and emphasized less in general. Texting and other new technologies have resulted in a wellspring of neologisms (“blog,” “googling,” etc.) and new constructions (“LOL,” “fail”). Despite the protestations of those who still care about it, the English language is more or less still intact.

We usually know what people mean when they say “less” instead of “fewer,” or when they call something “more unique” than something else. So why do we even need Strunk and White (except to sound smart by correcting others)?

Because, basically, language is built on coordination. The only way two people can communicate is if they agree on what words, phrases and sentences mean. And the only way to do that is through rules.

While plenty of people who don’t follow, or even know, the rules of usage manage to use English adequately, there is a wide chasm between getting your audience to understand the gist of what you mean and conveying the precise meaning you intend. For adherents of Strunk and White, it is akin to the difference between playing Little League and playing in the World Series.

I may be more or less understood if I say “awkward” when I mean “uncomfortable” or “he plays good” instead of “he plays well,” but the resulting ambiguity and mental energy is not ideal (not to mention all the negative inferences about my intelligence I am inviting). If there is a better way to say what you mean, then why not use it? Sticking to the rules of usage that Strunk and White enumerate are certainly not the only way to use language, but they may be the best way.

This is at least what Strunk and White believe, and they present their rules straightforwardly; these are the rules of the language, so follow them if you want to use language well.

Why these rules? Some of the rules are certainly perplexing. Take their first one: “Form a singular possessive by adding ’s. Follow this rule whatever the final consonant.” In other words, the book that belongs to Charles is “Charles’s book” and not “Charles’ book,” which strikes me as aesthetically unpleasant. They also don’t like “and/or,” split infinitives, or the Oxford comma—all of which are debatable.

In fact, some of their rules are technically incorrect. They warn the reader not to use “disinterested” to mean “uninterested,” since it really means “impartial,” but, according to the OED (perhaps the only source more sacrosanct that Strunk and White), both uses are correct.

This often misplaced dismissiveness garners a fair amount of criticism. Linguist Geoffrey Pullum, for example, called the book “overopinionated and underinformed” in his essay, 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice. Pullum’s issues with the little book include its maligning of the passive voice, and its reliance on tautological bromides. Of course we should “Omit needless words,” for example, but which words are needless? Every writer wishes to “Be Clear,” but how, exactly, does one do that?

The drawback of Strunk and White, and any work on English usage, is that it must present as rules what it really only means as suggestions. Sure, “lay” is to be used as a transitive verb, but would the song be nearly as poetic if it were called “Lie Lady Lie”? Strunk and White themselves admit that the passive voice is useful in some situations, despite the fact that Rule 14 is “Use the active voice.”

Strunk and White’s commands, then, are really more like priorities. When they say “Do Not Explain Too Much,” for example, they can only give moderate advice as to what constitutes “too much” (basically, it’s adverbs), but the point of the rule is not to categorically outlaw explanations, but to make one wary of burdening prose with redundancies.

Reading Strunk and White is not so much an act of memorizing specific rules, but of learning certain values. The specifics are often wrong—“by the time this paragraph sees print, pysched, nerd, ripoff, dude, geek, and funky will be the words of yesteryear” (bear in mind that the paragraph first saw print 50 years ago and not ONE of those words is any more outdated than “yesteryear”)—but the values are almost always right. The themes that emerge—brevity, clarity, forcefulness, precision, accuracy—are things that any good writer must be mindful of while writing. And following the “rules” is a good way to do that.

What is so impressive and lasting about Strunk and White is not they can tell us to put a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause (Rule 4), but that the values they propagate in their rules are so constant when the specific rules of grammar and language are so fungible and transient.

It’s really up to you if you want to use a word like “offputting,” but Strunk and White will let you know that the word’s meaning is not very precise and there’s probably a better word out there. And yes, “disinterested” can mean “uninterested,” but “uninterested” always means “uninterested,” so why create possible ambiguity?

It’s a cliché to say that language is always changing, but it’s true. Some abbreviations that the grammar-lovers abhor (“texting,” “obvs,” etc.) are perfectly acceptable by now. There have always been multiple ways of saying the same thing. In some cases, one way is clearly superior to another, but more often than not the difference comes down to style. Strunk and White’s rules are not meant to eliminate style or make everyone use language the same way. Instead, they know that truly masterful stylists use language well by maintaining certain priorities: Be precise. Be clear. Say what you mean. That, after all, is what English is for.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Thesis Boy on July 30, 2009 at 12:58 PM

    “In other words, the book that belongs to Charles is “Charles’s book” and not “Charles’ book,” which strikes me as aesthetically unpleasant.”

    Beyond pointing out the unfortunate ambiguity of that sentence (it’s not clear which version of the possessive you prefer), I’ll also argue that Strunk and White are correct in their rule. Without giving it too much thought, I would venture to say that aesthetic concerns should not outweigh grammatical consistency, particularly when the function of a word is at stake.

    Incidentally, this also relates to the issue of quotation marks and punctuation. In your last paragraph, as one example, you have this: (“texting,” “obvs,” etc.)

    To my mind, it undoubtedly makes more sense to have this: (“texting”, “obvs”, etc.). The quotation marks serve to isolate only that which is not a part of your own expression.

    Your intended meaning is clear, but “the resulting ambiguity and mental energy is not ideal”. You can tell from my placement of that period that it is my own expression instead a continued quotation.

    In most cases the ambiguity is, admittedly, extremely minor. However, there are rare cases in which the meaning might change. For example, consider the following (it’s a hasty example, so the consequence of the ambiguity is still rather trivial):

    1. I asked Rachel if she would go to the dance with me, and she said “Not in a million years!”
    2. I asked Rachel if she would go to the dance with me, and she said “Not in a million years”!

    If there’s any form of punctuation that’s especially egregious from an aesthetic standpoint, it’s the external exclamation point. Yet it’s clear that the placement of the punctuation yields a semantic nuance.

    Quotation marks are used, outside of dialogue, to indicate borrowed expression, and for that reason alone the author’s own punctuation must occur externally.

    I wonder if Strunk and White disagree? I think I have the book somewhere…


  2. […] series, Yankees. Leave a Comment Tim and I have each spent time challenging the uses and abuses of the English language. Josh, for his part, has highlighted words the make him cringe. It’s not unfair to say that we […]


  3. […] to skip to the answers, here they are; if you don’t think grammar is important (even after our repeated defenses of it), then read […]


  4. […] campaign against NPI’s beloved Strunk and White has begun! John S reviewed The Elements of Style last summer while Tim once divulged that William Strunk was, at one point, a […]


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