Defending The Elements of Style

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1649

In the past couple of decades, virtually every literary work bearing the label ‘‘classic’’ has been assailed as misogynistic, irrelevant, or both. Critics writing from a number of different perspectives, from postmodernist to feminist, have pointed out the myriad ways in which the writing of white males—whether they lived in ancient Greece or the twentieth-century United States—supposedly denigrates everyone else. Some of these scholars, contradicting their own rhetoric about the importance of inclusion and diversity, have argued that the traditionally accepted canon of Western literature is so pernicious that it should be thrown onto the trash heap of history.

Anyone who supposes that a slim little manual of writing style like The Elements of Style is too apolitical and innocuous to attract the attention of such a mob would be underestimating the fury of the critics as well as their talent for tortured reasoning. How furious are they? How tortured is their reason- ing? A couple examples from an article that appeared in Western Humanities Review in 1991 provide a good answer. In this article, ‘‘Bewhiskered Examples in The Elements of Style,’’ Debra Fried takes issue with Strunk and White for choosing Nehemiah 11:7 as their example of how to correctly use a colon to separate chapter from verse in a biblical citation. Ever alert for insidious attacks on nonwhite non-males, Fried suspected that Strunk and White must have been up to no good when they chose that particular example. She was outraged, but most likely not surprised, to find that Nehemiah 11:7 reads thus: ‘‘And these are the sons of Benjamin: Sallu the son of Meshullam, the son of Joed, the son of Pedaiah, the son of Kolaiah, the son of Maaseiah, the son of Ithiel, the son of Jesaiah.’’ The choice of this verse to illustrate colon placement is an assault on womanhood, Fried reasons. Her sentences are not any easier to navigate than her reasoning, but only Fried’s own words will do here. Therefore, here are Fried’s own words:

What do the sons of Benjamin have to do with the placement of the colon? Could it be that the Nehemiah text implies that genealogy is the originating instance of the colon . . . ? Do we have here a grammarian’s just-so story . . . that teaches us that patriarchy . . . marked the beginning of the categorization that the colon authorizes and makes legible? Things of the same type are those that a single patriarch has begotten; according to this logic, fathering becomes the reigning metaphor for categorizing, and the model for the relation of general to particular . . . is that of a father to his sons.

The text of the verse does not even appear in The Elements of Style, but Fried wants her readers to believe that Strunk and White planted the reference in hopes that theirs would look it up and thus be indoctrinated to believe (as far as this writer can figure out) that punctuation marks have gender, and colons are male, and that is bad.

Fried also objects to the sentence ‘‘As a mother of five, with another one on the way, my ironing board is always up.’’ Strunk and White offer this as an example of a misplaced participial phrase, as the sentence, strictly read, states that the ironing board is a mother of five. Fried sees in the sentence the authors’ disapproval of the woman who is speaking and, by extension, all women who have several children. Why is she sure that the authors feel this way? Well, she reasons, since Strunk and White advocate a ‘‘spare, crisp style’’ of writing, they obviously despise the woman for her ‘‘procreative productivity,’’ which Fried claims is ‘‘incompatible’’ with concise writing and the economical use of words. Fried’s thesis: If Strunk and White prefer fewer words to more words, then they must also prefer fewer children to more children. The ironing board in Strunk and White’s sentence, writes Fried, is the woman’s ‘‘punishment for producing too many children.’’ She further refers to these children as ‘‘the ragged brood whose very number is a kind of raggedness no ironing will smooth.’’

Of course, it is not possible to cross from Strunk and White’s sentence to Fried’s conclusion using the bridge of logic. A logical consideration of the two works—Strunk and White’s book and Fried’s article—reveals that only one of them uses judgmental language. Only Fried charges that the woman has ‘‘too many’’ children who comprise a ‘‘ragged band.’’ It is Fried, not Strunk and White, who denigrates the woman in the sentence and all women like her.

Fried’s refrain is that the examples that Strunk and White use to illustrate their rules of usage and style consistently belittle women. A balanced reading of their book, however, finds that the examples are balanced in terms of gender. One example of proper use of the dash is ‘‘His first thought on getting out of bed—if he had any thought at all— was to get back in again.’’ If Strunk and White had used ‘‘her’’ and ‘‘she’’ in place of ‘‘his’’ and ‘‘he,’’ Fried no doubt would have lashed out at them for characterizing women as thoughtless and lazy. Since they did not use feminine pronouns, Fried seems to have disregarded the sentence. An example of subject- verb agreement is: ‘‘His speech as well as his manner is objectionable.’’ Again, imagine Fried’s outrage if the sentence had been written about ‘‘her’’ speech and manner. ‘‘The culprit, it turned out, was he’’ clearly casts a male in the role of villain, and ‘‘Will Jane or he be hired, do you think?’’ puts Jane on an equal footing with a male in a job-related situation. All these examples appear within a few pages, but since they do not support Fried’s argument, she ignores them.

Another recent argument for setting aside The Elements of Style has been that its insistence on standard rules of usage and grammar is archaic. Gary and Glynis Hoffman’s book Adiós, Strunk and White: A Handbook for the New Academic Essay, is one purveyor of this argument. The Hoffmans disagree with Strunk and White on virtually every issue. Strunk and White discuss the importance of organization to good written work; the Hoffmans begin their first chapter with the subheading ‘‘Style before Organization.’’ While the idea that style takes precedence over structure would leave most writers (and writing teachers) scratching their heads, at least the phrase is comprehensible, which is more than can be said for what follows. The Hoffmans’ highly idiosyncratic ‘‘elements of style’’ are listed as ‘‘flow,’’ ‘‘pause,’’ ‘‘fusion,’’ ‘‘opt,’’ and ‘‘scrub.’’ Of course, no matter how well a reader knows English, he or she will not be able to determine what the Hoffmans had in mind when they wrote these chapter headings or what activities or elements of the writing task the words refer to. The words as the Hoffmans use them do not communicate anything; they are just a list of words. Apparently, the authors felt free and creative when they wrote it, and freedom and creativity are what they preach and value. Putting ‘‘Style before Organization’’ means putting the writer’s experience before the reader’s understanding, and the Hoffmans’ book provides a parade example.

There is nothing wrong with writing down a string of words that make the writer feel that he or she is precocious, but the end result is not necessarily an essay. It is not surprising, then, that one student who followed the Hoffmans’ advice reported, in a customer review of their book on, ‘‘The minute I applied this technique in my classes . . . i [sic] had teachers scrawling huge question marks on my papers.’’ This student described the Hoffmans’ guide as a ‘‘right-in-yourface- conventional-inconventionalist [sic] book,’’ so the professors’ confusion is understandable.

The point is so elementary that one is almost embarrassed to have to make it: Whether the game in question is baseball or writing, rules are what make the game possible. Without rules, one or two people can toss a ball around and swing a bat at it and be entertained for a while. But they cannot really explore all the fascinating, amazing things that people can do with a ball and a bat unless they establish rules so that everybody understands what everybody else is doing, which allows the players to interact and the watchers to understand what they are watching. Rules make it possible to take a ball and a bat and a group of people and create a story—a story that, in athletic play, happens to be called a game—that all the players, and maybe millions of spectators, experience together as being exciting and enjoyable and meaningful. Just so, rules make it possible to put words on paper in such a way that they make a story that can excite and move and inspire millions of people. A series of words comprehensible only to the writers—flow, pause, fusion, opt, scrub—cannot do this.

The Hoffmans claim that the traditional rules of grammar and style are meaningless, but in fact these rules make meaning possible. Strunk and White offer no meaningless rules and no unnecessary ones. They offer just a small volume of rules, principles, and suggestions that provide a framework for clear written communication so that everybody can enjoy the game. Far from putting writers in stylistic straitjackets, they celebrate styles as diverse as those of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, Robert Frost and Walt Whitman. Their sense of humor and creativity are on display on every page of The Elements of Style. They poke gentle fun at human beings of both genders and show disregard for none. For all these reasons, The Elements of Style will never go out of style.

Source: Candyce Norvell, Critical Essay on The Elements of Style, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.

A Potentially Confusing Work

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The Elements of Style is, as E. B. White admits in its introduction, ‘‘a dusty rulebook.’’ It governs everything from how to make possessive singular nouns plural to why the active voice is preferable to the passive. The majority of the book is Will Strunk’s attempt, as E. B. White says in his introduction to the third edition, ‘‘to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin.’’ In so doing, The Elements of Style promotes a philosophy of composition whose first tenet is the idea that ‘‘good sense is the foundation of good writing,’’ as Sir Winston Churchill has said. Because few writers would disagree with this sentiment—and because it is among the first books to promote such a commonsense philosophy—The Elements of Style is an important book to anyone interested in English prose style. Nevertheless because Strunk and White sometimes confuse grammatical and mechanical competence with actual literary style, the book is also potentially confusing.

Most writing teachers urge students to become grammatically and mechanically proficient because students who understand and utilize Standard English will pass through their universities and colleges with less failure and frustration than students who do not. In other words, writers who do not write clear sentences risk more than just being misunderstood. Since careless mistakes are often thought to indicate a failure of character or a failure of intelligence, writers who do not take the necessary pains to be understood imply that they do not care about their readers, and in this way risk their reputations as persons. Writers who do not add the apostrophe after a plural possessive noun—just one example of the many mistakes novice writers make—imply, in other words, that they’re either lazy or incompetent.

But because readers do evaluate a writer’s character and intelligence based on the way she writes, any serious study of style cannot assume that mere grammatical and mechanical proficiency will, even eventually, generate the necessary tools for actual literary style. Style is not the result of a writer adhering to laws and edicts. Style is, instead, the very ways in which writers violate laws and edicts in order to distinguish themselves from other voices.

It is impossible to find writers who would dispute the idea that style is the result of distinguishing techniques and procedures, rather than the consequence of a devotion to usage rules and regulations. In The Modern Stylists, the American poet Donald Hall says, ‘‘the style is the man. Again and again, the modern stylists repeat this idea.’’ Even E. B. White admits that style is a consequence of the individual techniques a specific writer has of distinguishing herself from other writers. He says, ‘‘When we speak of Fitzgerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. Every writer, by the way he uses the language, reveals something of his spirit, his habits, his capacities, his bias.’’

Even a cursory investigation of the techniques of almost any significant writer in the Western literary tradition will also define literary style as the means and methods writers have of distinguishing their voices from others. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita begins in this way:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the top of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

This passage is composed of quick-moving, almost stream-of-consciousness sentence fragments, and is extremely ‘‘egocentric’’—to use White’s term—in the sense that it does nothing but express the narrator’s opinion. Because of the repetition of the consonant ‘‘l’’ and ‘‘t’’ sounds—the ‘‘t’’ sound inaugurates eleven words and shows up in the middle of three in this passage, while the ‘‘l’’ sound kicks off seven and shows up in the middle of many more—it even risks seeming overwritten. Yet is not this paragraph beyond memorable? Although the three fragments and free-floating syllable sounds in this passage are anything but grammatically correct, the passage conveys urgency and obsession through its display of fleeting but focused thought. Nabokov is able, in other words, to convey with his style more than he would be able to convey with content alone. This passage also says as much about its writer as its topic, and reminds us how vivid and strange experience is by surprising us with its unprecedented technique.

In On Beauty and Being Just, the philosopher Elaine Scary says that beauty ‘‘is unprecedented,’’ and that we all are drawn to the beautiful—in art and nature—because the beautiful ‘‘quickens . . . adrenalines . . . makes the heart beat faster . . . life more vivid, animated, living, worth living.’’ In this way, Scary reinforces the idea that style, which is closely linked to beauty, cannot be the consequence of conventional linguistic behavior.

Two of White’s suggestions in his ‘‘Approach to Style’’ are especially confusing to anyone seriously interested in actual prose style (rather than grammatical and mechanical proficiency). The first one, a suggestion for the writer to place herself ‘‘in the background’’ [so she might] ‘‘write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood or temper of the author,’’ undermines everything we know about style by advocating what for the lack of a better term can be called ‘‘voicelessness.’’

An additional suggestion of White’s advises students not to inject their opinions into their texts because ‘‘opinions scattered indiscriminately about leave the mark of egotism on a work.’’ By doing so, he completely avoids the fact that ‘‘the essence of all good style . . . is expressiveness,’’ as the English writer Water Pater has said. In other words, White’s suggestion for writers to keep themselves in the background of their texts and to avoid expressing opinions is not advice that will help writers develop style, but is rather a recipe for cultivating the lack of style that is one of the first marks of bad writing.

Perhaps the best evidence for the book’s ambiguity is the style of The Elements of Style itself. That is, the main thing that distinguishes The Elements of Style from the multitude of composition handbooks available today is the voice Strunk and White generate in it. In the book’s introduction, White says, in fact, that Strunk sounds sometimes like a ‘‘Sergeant . . . snapping orders to his platoon.’’ White goes to great lengths to praise his old professor’s ‘‘wisdom’’ and ‘‘attitude toward right and wrong.’’ This attitude, which is sometimes military, but is also playful and humorous, comes about as a consequence of both White and Strunk’s unwillingness to stay in the text’s background. It is, in other words, a result of the authors’ unwillingness to follow their own advice.

Speaking on how necessary it is to surround ‘‘parenthetical expressions’’ (these are sometimes called ‘‘non-restrictive clauses and phrases’’ or, in more liberal handbooks, ‘‘asides’’ and ‘‘interjections’’) with commas, Strunk tells us, ‘‘there is no defense for such punctuation as [in the sentence], ‘Marjorie’s husband, Colonel Nelson paid us a visit today.’’’ In his long treaties on diction or word choice, White advises writers ‘‘never to call a stomach a tummy without good reason.’’ And, when he advises beginning writers to avoid overwriting, he says, ‘‘Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.’’ Such tidbits are interesting not because of the information they provide, but because of the attitude they take toward their subject matter and audience. This attitude constitutes the book’s style, and also counters the idea that good writers should stay in the background of their texts.

One of the more popular handbooks used in colleges and universities today is Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference. On the topic of the use of commas in parenthetical expressions, Hacker says, ‘‘Expressions that are distinctly parenthetical should be set off with commas. Providing supplemental comments or information, they interrupt the flow of a sentence or appear as afterthoughts.’’ Hacker’s chapter on diction or word choice is not so much a chapter as a list of words commonly misused. In comparison, White has a lot to say about diction in his ‘‘Approach to Style.’’ He says, for just one example, to avoid ‘‘the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute.’’ Is not ‘‘the coy, and the cute’’ coy and cute? And is it therefore not only the violation of one of the rules laid out in The Elements of Style, but also, and more to the point, far more interesting than Hacker’s sentence on parenthetical expressions?

In the final chapter of The Elements of Style, E. B. White admits to the futility of proposing that literary merit, which he calls ‘‘a high mystery,’’ can be achieved by strict adherence to a set of rules. He asks, ‘‘Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind?’’ In his introduction to the third edition, White admits that even Will Strunk ‘‘was quick to acknowledge the fallacy of inflexibility and the danger of doctrine.’’ Despite these caveats, neither Strunk nor White offers students useful suggestions for cultivating actual literary style, because they mistakenly assume that grammatical and mechanical proficiency is the same as style, which even the book itself proves to be nowhere near the case.

Source: Adrian Blevins, Critical Essay on The Elements of Style, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.

The Practicality of Using a Timeworn Guide

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William Strunk, a professor at Cornell in the first part of the twentieth century, wrote and self-published a slim volume titled The Elements of Style, which was required reading for his students, and no one else. Four decades later, E. B. White, one of Professor Strunk’s former students, edited the volume for Macmillan Publishing Company for the general public. Since then, ‘‘the little book,’’ as Strunk referred to it, has sold millions of copies, and teachers everywhere rely on it to imbue their students with confidence and precision in writing. The rules of grammar and usage and the advice on style in the book are elemental—applicable to any style of writing, even in the present age, when adherence to form is ignored and even belittled as out of date.

With today’s MTV generation bored and facing an embarrassment of choices, and who quake at the sight of a line of thought that runs longer than thirty seconds, it is more important than ever to write concisely, to get to one’s point as quickly as possible. But what makes a writer strong and persuasive? Clarity of thought, cleanliness of form, confident statements are elements of good style. And, of course, an understanding of the subject matter is necessary. While the authors of The Elements of Style could not guarantee that a writer know his subject, they did provide a guide to remedy the abuses of sloppiness, ambiguity, and lack of confidence. What Strunk published in his textbook in 1918 for White and his other students at Cornell, and what White reiterated by editing and embellishing Strunk’s little manual on writing for the general public, remains vital to the task of effective writing.

Strunk and White write for the reader. Their book teaches a writer how to do the same. What else is there, the book seems to assume, except the audience? If the purpose of a written work is to remain hidden from others, then it may well be that ascribing to rules of grammar is moot; but in fact, most people write so that others may read and comprehend. Because we live in a society that survives based on our ability to communicate our feelings and needs through words, languages have naturally evolved. Language developed as human mouths and brains became more complex. Thus, it is entirely natural that rules of usage also evolved through time, as a necessary means of allowing humans to better understand one another. Why, then, should the advent of email and faxes and cellular phone text-messaging obfuscate the need for a baseline set of rules? In each medium, the rules merge, shift, revamp themselves, resurfacing as a more or less complete set of dicta to explain how to communicate—via the Internet, pager, or cellphone. However, these methods of communication are all exceptions; what remain are the rules. And those rules have seldom been more clearly set out than in Strunk and White’s 5-ounce text, The Elements of Style. Grammatical rules and opinions exist, in abundance, that are not included in this text. But as a tiny whole, The Elements of Style provides a solid background from which any writer can confi- dently begin.

The book does not pretend to be more than it is; it is a manual on writing that one of E. B. White’s college professors gave out to students, which White found useful, and which, years later, a publishing company asked White to edit for mass publication. White assented, and added a good bit of his personal luster to the task. In his introduction written for the 1979 edition of the book, White wrote that the textbook as written by Strunk ‘‘seemed to me to contain rich deposits of gold.’’ It is one man’s ‘‘attempt to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin.’’ That pin was a slim volume of fortythree pages, which remains intact but for the addition of new phrases and words and the updating of a few examples. To the slim volume, White added his valuable essay, ‘‘An Approach to Style (With a List of Valuable Reminders),’’ which he referred to as ‘‘a mystery story, thinly disguised.’’ He humbly allows that there is no single referendum on style, that there is ‘‘no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course.’’

In short, writing is a task that requires an enviable amount of skill. There is little or no time made for editing, and thus, knowing the rules is an ever more practical means of making a strong point. And in White’s essay and Strunk’s rules, a hopeful writer finds a welcome source of guidance. In the first chapters of the book are ‘‘instructions drawn from established English usage’’; the chapter on style, rather, ‘‘contains advice drawn from a writer’s experience of writing.’’

In the book’s language, the audience hears resolve thickening; from the left-hand examples on each page, to those on the right, Strunk proves the power of invigorated texts, trimming the fat of phrases and sentences and fine-tuning them to be read with thoroughbred speed. For example, an anonymous writer penned the following ambiguous sentence: ‘‘Young and inexperienced, the task seemed easy to me.’’ To whom do the adjectives ‘‘young’’ and ‘‘inexperienced’’ refer? It is not clear, but Strunk provides clarity with a rewritten sentence that lies adjacent to the unclear one: ‘‘Young and inexperienced, I thought the task easy.’’ Likewise, White, in his essay, provides ‘‘gentle reminders’’ about the very personal art of style, providing a gossamer of guidance after the strong hand of Strunk’s grammatical whip. ‘‘if you doubt that style is something of a mystery, try rewriting a familiar sentence and see what happens.’’ Later in his essay, White states: ‘‘[w]rite in a way that comes easily and naturally to you, using words and phrases that come readily to hand. But do not assume that because you have acted naturally your product is without flaw.’’ And toward the end, he writes, ‘‘[s]tyle takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition, for, as an elderly practitioner once remarked, ‘writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.’’’ Through examples and fully argued points, Strunk and White impress upon their readers the vitality of good writing. In one of the book’s most famous passages, Strunk writes:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Strunk and White make their grammatical arguments vigorously. The authors are on their reader’s side. The book is didactic, but also full of cheer, humor, and encouragement. In referring to how to write the date, the text declares that ‘‘[t]he last form (‘‘6 April 1988’’) is an excellent way to write a date; the figures are separated by a word and are, for that reason, quickly grasped.’’ In the section entitled ‘‘Principles of Composition,’’ the authors note: ‘‘Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfuncT tory expression as there is or could be heard.’’ And the ever-clear: ‘‘Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.’’ The authors are determined to see their readers succeed, and if, for that reason, the tone of the writing is at times stern, the better for the reader. Life at the turn of this new century is pathetically forgiving of faults, doubts, and mistakes. As quickly as one may rise in western society, so may one also fall. To keep one’s writing skills sharp decries laziness, and in the hubris of high-speed communication, provides a vital means of staying ahead of the game.

The Elements of Style remains as vital today as when it was first published within the confines of a single university. It has been attacked as out of date, as too brief, as narrow of mind. But critics who argue as much simply miss the point. The book does not profess to be biblical—it is effective because it displays with brevity and sincerity a way to write that is clear and steady, though not the only way. The Elements of Style provides a clear and succinct backdrop to English grammar, guiding the reader with verve and wit through the perils of poor punctuation and fatuous thought. In the end, what the reader arrives at is not a finishing point, but a beginning. And that is a gift, not only for those who call themselves writers, but for every man or woman who writes.

Source: Allison DeFrees, Critical Essay on The Elements of Style, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.

E. B. Whitewashed?

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Elements of Style Author Knew Writing Rules Were Meant to be Bent
No American writing guide is more revered than the 5-ounce Strunk & White, a.k.a. The Elements of Style (Allyn & Bacon). ‘‘Timeless,’’ ‘‘the best book of its kind we have,’’ gush its idolaters. Yet, for all its glory, the tiny-shouldered book is also a magnet for bashers.

It is geriatric. First appearing in 1918, it underwent its fourth resuscitation in 2000. It is small and vulnerable—as pokable as the Pillsbury Doughboy for determined critics. And the coddling it enjoys from the writing establishment makes rebel blood boil. In a 1989 bashing, one alternative-press writer dubbed White ‘‘a cranky old man.’’

Who is correct? For every basher who attacks Elements as a meager, authoritarian fossil, a corps of literati hails its grace, concision and moral sense. In a review of the fourth edition, conservative columnist Andrew Ferguson called it ‘‘a book about life—about the value of custom, the necessity of roles, the corruptions of vanity, the primacy of good taste.’’

The controversy, however, erupted long before the latest edition.

War Baby
In the late 1950s, a war flared between liberal and conservative language authorities. The liberals took a stand against ‘‘elitist’’ notions of ‘‘correctness.’’ They argued that actual widespread usage, not prescribed forms, determined the validity of language. This ‘‘descriptive’’ approach to standard English raised the hackles of ‘‘prescriptivists,’’ who believed in established roles and a hierarchy of expression.

One such prescriptivist was New Yorker writer and master essayist E. B. White. He condemned the descriptivist view of language as an ‘‘Anything Goes’’ school. Encouraged by a publisher, he entered the fray by updating the stem little handbook of William Strunk Jr., his 1919 English professor at Cornell. Strunk had called his privately printed book The Elements of Style.

White began the new Elements with a paean to Strunk and to the professor’s belief in ‘‘right and wrong.’’ He added his touch to mundane points of grammar and form, then concluded with ‘‘An Approach to Style,’’ a classic of writing advice. Here he showcased his own skills as he warned against excesses that tempt new and youthful writers.

Aside from this essay, the book treats only the most commonly violated fundamentals as the authors saw them: a few dozen issues in grammar and composition and a sampling of usage problems. Some entries support such fading niceties as the distinctions between ‘‘shall’’ and ‘‘will.’’ Others simply reflect White’s antiquated bugaboos—for example, the sin of using ‘‘fix’’ to mean ‘‘mend’’ in formal English.

Selective and quirky as it may be, Strunk & White has succored confused students and forgetful communicators for more than 40 years. As a guide to the ‘‘plain English style,’’ the book may yet save America from choking on its jargon and obfuscations. And all writers must take seriously the perceptions of ‘‘correctness’’ in English. Readers sense ‘‘correct’’ and disciplined patterns, whether or not they favor or even understand them. Jarring this sense of order can do two things: It can lose readers by sidetracking them into concerns about wrongness. Or—as Elements fails to make clear—it can wake readers up and set them dancing.

Breaking the Rules
Both Strunk and White knew well that bending the rules—judiciously breaking them—can give writing its distinction, its edge, its very style. Bending them can spring writers from ruts, get them out of themselves, out of the ordinary, and into prose that comes alive, gets noticed, gets published.

‘‘I felt uneasy at posing as an expert on rhetoric,’’ White wrote in 1957, ‘‘when the truth is I write by ear, always with difficulty and seldom with any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood.’’

And Strunk himself affirmed that ‘‘the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the readers will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation.’’

Writing is risk-taking. We bungee-jump from a sentence and pray the cord stops short of catastrophe. We day-trade in language, gambling that a hot image will hold up.

White described expression as ‘‘a living stream, shifting, changing, receiving new strength from a thousand tributaries,’’ but advised ‘‘there is simply a better chance of doing well if the writer holds a steady course, enters the stream of English quietly, and does not thrash about.’’

Who, then, draws strength from those tributaries? Whose prose comes alive in the churning waters? Some writers who ‘‘thrash about’’ go under—but others make waves!

White’s admonitions may apply in Composition 101, or for those with a riveting story that best tells itself. But what happens when quieted-down expression meets today’s rock concert-like din of overloaded and under-stimulated brains?

White wrote in an era when the well-tempered essay found receptive minds, when readers willingly entered into quiet dialogue with an author. But the last few decades have brought New Journalism and rude, in-your-face communications media into the mainstream.

In this sometimes disparaging, sometimes liberating environment, expressiveness calls for breaka- leg performance; it wants aggressiveness, surprise, exuberance, responsiveness, intensity, rebelliousness— most of which White seems to disdain, except in his own prose.

In his essays and three unconventional children’s classics, White went his own way as a writer. But in Elements of Style, he offered little encouragement for others to do so. Instead, he warned them against the ‘‘disinclination to submit to discipline.’’ But how inclined to submission was White?

As a youth, he skimped through Cornell University with ‘‘anemic’’ interests in everything but writing. Shunning his native East Coast, he peddled roach powder in Minneapolis, reported for the Seattle Times and served as messboy aboard a ship cruising the Aleutian Islands before returning East as an advertising copywriter. He called himself disciplined, but he took risks in life and in writing, including the death-defying risk of telling others how to write.

White probably never meant to advise against taking chances, against drawing on all levels of language, against demolishing any rule to get attention.

It just comes out that way.

Source: Arthur Plotnik, ‘‘E. B. Whitewashed?,’’ in the Writer, Vol. 114, No. 8, August 2001, pp. 10–12.

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Critical Overview