The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition—William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White

Strunk, William Jr. and E. B. White

The Elements of Style

Longman 4th edition, 1999

ISBN: 978-0205309023

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strunk_white_elements-of-styleStrunk and White is, and was, aimed at English undergraduate essay writers. It began as a small pamphlet that Strunk wrote, printed himself, and gave to his freshman comp and introduction to literature study students at Cornell in 1918. White, of New Yorker and Charlotte’s Web fame, was a former student of Strunk’s, and, out of admiration for his mentor’s work, reprinted a revised version of the pamphlet. White republished The Elements of Style in several editions.

Longman Publishing bought the rights to the content and the title, and have published several revised versions using a variety of editors and ghost writers, though the audience is still very much primarily freshman comp students.

The very first edition is available for free here. It is worth looking at, but it is not the version that people refer to with either fervent admiration, or fervent loathing. You will note that the Introduction starts with the very practical admonition to the reader:

This book is intended for use in English courses in which the practice of composition is combined with the study of literature. It aims to give in brief space the principal requirements of plain English style. It aims to lighten the task of instructor and student by concentrating attention (in Chapters II and III) on a few essentials, the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated. The numbers of the sections may be used as references in correcting manuscript.

I like Strunk and White; I’ve even used it to teach. But I am dismayed that it is so often touted as some sort of über usage and style guide when it wasn’t intended as such, and really, can’t function as such. I’m particularly dismayed to see how very often Strunk and White is treated as a grammar and usage oracle by writers beginning to write fiction. It was not ever, and is not now intended for an audience other than the freshman or sophomore essayist in a humanities class. Other than some very basic (and often inadequate guidelines) about punctuation and verb tense, it doesn’t really have a lot to say to writers outside of the freshman comp class.

I am very much of Geoffrey K. Pullum’s mind regarding Strunk and White; it is mostly harmless, but it is far too often taken by naive writers as the ultimate guide to English prose, and grammar. It is neither; it is at best simplistic, and at worst, just plain wrong. An example of “just plain wrong” is the discussion of passive voice; it’s idiotic in that the authors themselves use passive voice, three of the four examples given in the current edition (the fourth) as passive voice constructions aren’t, and in Strunk and White’s general terror at the very idea of using passive voice. Sometimes passive voice constructions are exactly the construction to use, for instance when the agent is in fact unknown—as is often the case in science writing.

If you’ve read Strunk and White and want something more useful, I’d suggest On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. William Zinsser. Zinsser covers a number of different kinds of non-fiction writing in clear and practical language. For a more useful general guide to English grammar, usage and style, I’d suggest June Casagrande’s It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences. This is a practical, specific, and thoroughly enjoyable guide to writing and revising English at the sentence level.

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