Strunk and White: Into the Elements again

You might not think that such a slim book would inspire such devotion and such loathing. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is less than 100 pages long in most editions and was first published in 1959, but even today its influence is broad and deep in American writing. A New York Times story published in the 50th anniversary year of Elements of Style reported that about 10 million copies have been sold. A measure of the book’s importance is that its 50th anniversary was noted. The book has spawned an illustrated version, an opera and a book about the book (Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style by Mark Garvey).

I have several copies, including Maira Kalman’s illustrated version, but I haven’t needed to study the text for years. I let the 50th anniversary pass without getting a new copy or contemplating its reach.* Recently, prompted by blog posts by Bryan Garner  and  Geoffrey K. Pullum, I decided to revisit the advice William Strunk Jr. and his student E.B. White passed along many years ago.

Linguist Pullum has a well-known and well-reasoned disdain for Strunk and White’s grammar advice, especially on passive voice. Usage expert Garner finds value in the old boys’ work. Some journalist friends believe writers and editors need no other style guide. I myself was enamored of the book as a young, largely self-taught copy editor. But as I read more usage and style guides, I learned to take some Strunk and White principles with a grain of salt.

Still, I wondered what advice in The Elements of Style might be valuable for copy editors today. Here is what I gleaned from looking at the 1979 edition of the book.

“Omit needless words” is No. 17 of the Principles of Composition. Most copy editors strive for conciseness. We are the ones who look for flabby phrases and tighten sentences. This is still valid advice. Look for the words that aren’t doing any work and get rid of them. Of course, we can have sharp debates with writers about which words are “needless.” But toning up writing is a worthy goal.

Strunk and White’s No. 14 Principle of Composition — “Use the active voice” — is fine as far as it goes. Before you take this one to heart, however, you need to understand the difference between active and passive voice. In active voice, the subject does the action; in passive voice, the subject receives the action.

Rain hit the window. (active)
The window was hit by rain. (passive)

In explaining Principle No. 14, Strunk and White use mistaken examples that undercut their advice. Constructions that use an expletive (there is) such as “There is more than one way to skin a cat” are not passive. You might want to edit those constructions, but don’t say that you are changing them from passive to active voice. Not every instance of a form of the verb be is passive. You can read more from Pullum on active and passive clauses.

After rereading this part of “Elements,” I think S&W were less concerned about active and passive voice than they were with creating strong, direct and readable prose. I wish they hadn’t mixed everybody up on passive, though.

More important is this from Strunk and White: “This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” It’s a shame that many editors didn’t take this to heart.

Strunk and White’s Elementary Rules of Usage are generally worth paying attention to, especially for beginners. The explanation of Rule No. 9 — “The number of the subject determines the number of the verb” — contains this useful passage: “A common blunder is the use of a singular verb form in a relative clause following ‘one of …’ or a similar expression when the relative is the subject.” I hit upon sentences like this almost every week.

Also worthwhile are Rules No. 10 (pronoun case) and No. 11 (dangling participles). If language arts teachers used these rules to guide their instruction in earlier grades, say sixth or seventh, we might see fewer mangled constructions in published work.

(By the way, Elements says the adjective “worthwhile” is “acceptable but emaciated.” I’d LOL here if I did such a thing.)

The chapter “Misused Words and Expressions” proved helpful to me as a beginning copy editor — if for no other reasons than self-defense against editors and slots who were fanatical about this section of Strunk and White. I might never have realized that “finalize,” “personalize” and “utilize” were widely hated. I also learned that “unique” shouldn’t be wimped up with qualifiers. (Heaven knows what S&W would think of “wimped up.”) And I would have let reporters write about “facilities” when they meant buildings.

Those admonitions about words, though, helped me hone my senses as a writer and a copy editor. I learned to look at sentence construction and word use with a critical eye. That is most important lasting effect of Strunk and White for me.

Because Strunk and White’s book has been so widely used in teaching writers and editors, copy editors might wish to be familiar with it, if only to argue against its rules. Perhaps in another generation or so, no one will care what the old boys had to say.

* My timing is off, I guess, in writing now about Strunk and White. Oh, well.

3 Responses to “Strunk and White: Into the Elements again”

  1. Michael Leddy

    The Elements of Style is flawed, for sure. But you’re missing, I think, the point of the section on the active voice. The passage that precedes the sample sentences makes clear that the discussion is not a matter of active v. passive: “The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action but in writing of any kind. 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 perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard. And Strunk and White do slip there: the sentence “The cock’s crow came with dawn” has an intransitive verb. But the examples don’t lend themselves to the conclusion that S and W don’t understand the difference between active and passive. The context for the examples is broader.

    (As you might guess, I paid close attention to the Pullum v. Strunk and White to-do in 2009.)

    • Pam Nelson

      I think you’re right, Michael, that S&W made a broader point about using active voice and more forceful structure. And surely, they both understood what true passive voice is. I think the misunderstanding of S&W created the problem.

  2. Josh Humble

    There’s no absolute standard to any medium, but if the majority followed Strunk & White’s example, we would be much stronger writers and speakers. The omitting of needless words is amongst the guide’s best values. As both a grammar nut and web designer, it pains me to read many posts, written by some excellent designers and developers, who don’t treat their words as kindly as their code. Some posts are just too difficult to get through. We need to constantly sharpen our communication skills, regardless of our craft.