Strunk & White – Useful Guide or Outdated Pedantry?

When it comes to writing guides, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White seems to provoke the most vociferous reactions. Like Marmite, people either love or hate this iconic little book – and it’s not hard to see why.

William Strunk Jr, an English professor at Cornell University, wrote the first edition of the book in 1918. Intended to help his students write more lucid prose. It was subsequently expanded and revised by one of his former students, E.B. White, for a 1959 edition, and has been variously updated since.

Stephen King recommends the book in his own guide, On Writing (2000) and in 2011, it was included on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential books published since 1923.

The first time I encountered The Elements of Style was while working in marketing for a large software company. It was recommended as a neat guide to writing advertising copy – especially in its exhortation to ‘omit needless words’ and concentrate on the clarity of each sentence.

Critics of the book argue that it is outdated and prescriptive, and I tend to agree. The advice is rendered such that it comes across as bossy and pedantic, and some forms of usage seem terribly old fashioned.

While there are some useful nuggets within its pages, I would advise against taking everything it advocates at face value. Remember, it was written over a hundred years ago by a professor trying to teach his students how to write a clean and concise essay – therefore, its dictates may not always be strictly applicable to creative writing. In addition, our usage of the language has evolved over the past ten decades, and continues to evolve even now.

Writing in a 2016 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Geoffrey Pullum, professor of linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, and co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), asserted that: 

The book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules

And the Boston Globe described it in 2009 as,

An ageing zombie of a book.

I own copy of The Elements of Style, and occasionally refer to it when writing an article or blog post. But these days, I’m more likely to consult a more contemporary style guide, of which there are many. Two I have close at hand are the Oxford Style Guide and the Guardian Style Guide – however, I rarely dip into either.

When writing in the white heat of inspiration, the last thing you need is to be worrying about persnickety rules of composition. If you read a lot, you’re going to have a fairly sound grasp of the way the language works, and any glaring errors can be tidied up in later drafts.

We each need to find our authorial voice, and as long as we know basic grammar, it matters little that we split a few infinitives or structure a sentence more for its rhythm and beauty than its brevity.

In summary, I’d say that while the book does contain some useful nuggets of information, you would probably be wise not to take everything it says as gospel.

Do you have a favourite writing guide? Tell us in the comments...

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Author: Gareth L Powell


One thought on “Strunk & White – Useful Guide or Outdated Pedantry?”

  1. I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite, but the style I use for my day-job is based on Canadian Press Style. It’s sometimes hard to remember what’s what because (like all Canadian English) it’s a mishmash of US and UK guidelines. (And it’s frustratingly light on info about dashes.) If you’re ever curious how the Canucks do any particular thing, feel free to ping me!

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