Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

When it was first published, The Elements of Style was favorably reviewed in newspapers nationwide. P. F. Baum’s 1960 review in the Los Angeles Times Book Review is representative. Baum writes:

The world would be a better place if everybody read The Elements of Style; if it were read not just by writers and journalists but by all who write legal briefs, job applications, love letters, or notes to the teacher; read even by those who never write anything.

Baum praises the manual as ‘‘a monument to clear thinking cleanly voiced.’’

Edward C. Sampson, in his article on White for the Twayne’s United States Authors Series, calls Strunk’s original work ‘‘a short, precise guide to writing, free of jargon and written with a respect for the reader’s intelligence and needs.’’ Discussing White’s chapter on style, Sampson writes, ‘‘Many of his examples . . . are felicitous, and he generally manages to be precise and helpful without being dogmatic.’’ Sampson, however, finds White’s own writing style lacking. He writes: ‘‘Curiously, this chapter about style is not one of White’s effective pieces. It is not always clear, it is sometimes inconsistent, and it is repetitious in a way rare for White.’’ Sampson concludes that White ‘‘seems to be writing for himself or another artist, rather than for a freshman struggling with his weekly theme.’’ Baum disagrees, writing, ‘‘The final chapter on writing style displays all White’s own mastery of the essay form.’’

According to Sampson, White acknowledged that he had difficulty with his work on The Elements of Style, which undoubtedly came as a surprise to the many critics and readers who revered White as one of the finest essayists of his time. Sampson takes a quotation from White’s book The Points of My Compass, in which he writes of The Elements of Style, ‘‘I felt uneasy posing as an expert on rhetoric, when the truth is I write by ear, always with diffi- culty and seldom with any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood.’’

The most scathing criticism of the book has come from a few feminist critics who find it a manual of misogyny rather than writing style. In a 1991 article for Western Humanities Review, Debra Fried objects not so much to Strunk and White’s rules as to the examples they use to illustrate them. She objects to example sentences such as ‘‘Chloe smells good, as a pretty girl should,’’ declaring that ‘‘What is most pernicious about [these] sentences is that they are advanced under the false colors of mere examples.’’ They are not mere examples, Fried argues, but attempts to buttress male power and authority.

The Elements of Style has survived several decades of shifting theories about education, writing style, and gender politics. When it was published, it immediately became a popular text for college English and writing courses, and it is still widely used on college campuses today as well as in some high schools.

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Essays and Criticism