06 May 2014

The Elements of Style

       Before retiring in 2009 I did my fair share of legal writing. But I did an even greater amount of editing. My approach to editing is a simple one to state, harder to put into practice. I told those whose work I was charged with reviewing (and revising) that they should write as though there were one thousand ways to write their piece erroneously and one thousand ways to write it correctly. If they got it right, it would be right, even if I might have chosen a different one of those thousand acceptable approaches. But if they got it wrong, well, then it was in my hands and I had free rein when I revised it.

       Those of us who have written for a living -- as I did when I was editing those (uninteresting) legal briefs and memoranda -- have learned how to write through a prolonged process of trial and error. If successful, this process eventually results in the development of an ear for the language, an ability to “hear” what works on the page and what does not. But the process of getting there can be agonizing, and generally begins with the boot camp of learning (and following) a set of strict rules that are drilled into us at an early age. For many of us, at least those in my generation, those rules were probably initially encountered in The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.
       The Elements of Style was originally written and self-published by Strunk, an English professor at Cornell, who was White’s teacher in 1919. Popularly, however, the volume has been available for 55 years, dating from 1959, the year when White, who had written a New Yorker article praising the volume and Professor Strunk, edited and updated Strunk’s slender guide and for the first time published it for the mass market. Almost immediately the volume took off. Dorothy Parker said of it “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

       But, as is the case with almost any “how to write” treatise Strunk and White (as the book is often called) also has its detractors. Much of their criticism stems from the brittleness of the volume’s approach, its tendency to prescribe hard and fast rules in circumstances where guidance might be a better approach. In an article “celebrating” the 50th anniversary of The Elements of Style, “Fifty Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” (The Chronicle Review, April 17, 2009) Edinburgh English professor Geoffrey K. Pullum had very little good to say about the volume. As an example, Pullum takes issue with Strunk and White’s position on split infinitives.The Elements of Style advises that split infinitives "should be avoided unless the writer wishes to place unusual stress on the adverb." Pullum rejects the approach, labeling it “completely wrong”:
Tucking the adverb in before the verb actually de-emphasizes the adverb, so a sentence like "The dean's statements tend to completely polarize the faculty" places the stress on polarizing the faculty. The way to stress the completeness of the polarization would be to write, "The dean's statements tend to polarize the faculty completely."
       But arguably Pullum has fallen into the same “brittleness” trap for which he derides Strunk and White. In fact, as a purported universal rule, Pullum’s rule on adverb placement fares no better than does the Strunk and White rule. All Star Trek fans, for example, know that the word “boldly” is stronger under the Strunk and White "exception" approach (“to boldly go where no man has gone before”) than it would be under the Pullum alternative (“to go where no man has gone before boldly”). When one approach works for the “dean’s statement” sentence but the other works for the Star Trek opening, one can only conclude that there in fact can be no universal rule, nor universal exception.

       Are there other pitfalls encountered when a writer follows black and white approaches religiously? Certainly. For example, Strunk and White dictates that no sentence must ever begin with the word "and" or “however.” We are told to avoid “certainly” in almost all circumstances. “Factor” and “feature,” we are told, are “hackneyed words.” And the rule, as originally set forth by Strunk and White, is that “to-day”, “to-night” and “to-morrow,” are only to be written using hyphens. There may be guidance in this, but hardly unbreakable rules.

       In a 2009 article, also celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Elements of Style the New York Times had this to say:
The little book had big pretensions, which were not always appreciated by writers or even grammarians. Had they followed all the rules (avoid injecting fancy words, foreign languages and opinion), Thomas Wolfe, Vladmir Nabokov, William F. Buckley and Murray Kempton (a comma before “and” — or not?), to name a few successful writers, might have been shunted into very different careers.
       Pullum’s article goes further. To make its point that rules of English usage cannot be hard and fast Pullum takes on the Strunk and White rule that the phrase “none of us” requires the singular “is.” Using computerized searches of which the authors of The Elements of Style could only have dreamt, Pullum points out that Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea consistently and and almost invariably use “none of us are.”

       These examples illustrates the problem with any stark approach when it comes to setting usage rules. English simply refuses to play by those rules. It evolves. I used to work with someone who railed at anyone who spelled “supersede” with a “c”, decrying that this was the most common misspelling in the English language. But today “supercede” clears most spellcheckers just fine. And hardly anyone today (no hyphen) would hyphenate tonight or tomorrow as prescribed by The Elements of Style.

       The truth is, that while it is good to know the underlying rules when developing your writer’s ear, the rules themselves need to be taken with grains of salt. Once your ear has matured and developed it needs to be relied upon more than the rules. If the prose sounds right to an educated ear as it is written, it likely is right to the ear of the reader. This point was not lost on White, who, as anyone who has marveled at Charlotte’s Web fully realizes, was possessed of a great writer’s ear. White in fact acknowledged that his own approach to writing was at least a bit at loggerheads with the black letter law of The Elements of Style:
E.B. White, at work at The New York Times
I felt uneasy at posing as an expert on rhetoric, when the truth is I write by ear, . . . [but] [u]nless someone is willing to entertain notions of superiority, the English language disintegrates, just as a home disintegrates unless someone in the family sets standards of good taste, good conduct and simple justice.
       To me, that says it all. The rules set forth in The Elements of Style are foundational. Knowing them is like learning how to outline a story, or essay, in advance. Usage rules and outlining skills are tools that each of us should first master so that our writing is constructed on a solid foundation. Then, when and if we abandon the rules, or at least loosen the reins, it is with full knowledge of what we are doing.

       And (I purposely begin) even then we have to be careful. In that 2009 article celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Elements of Style, The New York Times noted that the latest edition of the book contained “ a forward by White’s stepson, Roger Angell.” Soon thereafter The Times published a correction. 

        It should have been “foreword.”


  1. I really enjoyed this post, Dale. Loved the Dorothy Parker quote. Was astonished by your claim that Star Trek's "to boldly go" is successful--I still cringe every time I hear it, and "to go boldly" would have worked just fine. Related to the plea for flexibility, which imho really has to do with voice. I'm in the midst of reviewing the copyedit of the new edition of VOYAGE OF STRANGERS, and I rebelled the sixth time the copyeditor demanded my protagonist (whose narrative voice is very powerful--I usually do whatever he says) conform every single time to the rule of "comma-so" but "no comma-so that." Let the guy say what he pleases once in a while! Luckily, my fairy godmother of a publisher has given me carte blanche to stet as much as I want, a privilege I'm taking full advantage of. Or must I say a privilege of which I'm taking full advantage?

  2. Dale, very interesting article.Seems our language has continued to evolve since man first spoke and learned to write, thus the rules continue to change over time.
    I also like the concept of writing by ear which allows me to say "that written line in my story sounds good. The heck with the written rule, the line flows." Having said that, I do still believe in some of the old conventions. However, as many of you have probably noticed, most of my writing is on the "telling stories of the street" level as opposed to being literary works. Write what you like, write what you know.

  3. Great column, Dale. Just before our three children set off for college, I gave each of them a copy of The Elements of Style. Those copies were probably used only as flowerpot coasters and props for wobbly table legs, but my intentions were good. I've always liked that book, and much of its advice still holds true.

    R.T., I've often heard that you should write what you feel comfortable writing--it might or might not be "what you know."

  4. It has always seemed to me that if you are writing dialog, or if the narration is first person by a character,there is much greater leeway to bend, or even ignore, stylistic rules. By contrast, at least to my ear, the reader expects more rigid adherence to the rules of style if the story is written from a third person "omniscient" point of view. I'm thinking there will be more on that in my next article.

  5. Dale, maybe that's why I write mostly in the first person, because that way I can bend the rules a lot!

  6. Eve --when I was in fifth grade I wrote a short story narrated in first person with slang words. My teacher said this was unacceptable and that the paper would not get a passing grade because no one could bend the rules. I told him to wait a minute, went to the library shelves at the back of the room, picked up a copy of Huckleberry Finn and put it on his desk. I got a decent grade on the paper but (I think) made an enemy of the teacher!

  7. A while back I got a copy of Strunk & White and very carefully used it as a guide in writing a story I sent off to a contest. I won an honorary mention but when I got my MS back the judges had red-circled all my careful punctuation and grammar!!


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