Strunk and White and The Elements of Style

Strunk's "Little book."
The first expanded edition of The Elements of Style. Source: Wikimedia

Known popularly as “the little book,” William Strunk Jr.’s, The Elements of Style, beats out any string of text on my “Influencers” list as a copywriter. Mine, actually, a version coauthored by E. B. White (Strunk and White) slimmer than my pinky finger and palm-sized has coffee-stained, dog-eared, soiled pages with typewriter ink fingerprints on a few pages. Strunk, a Cornell professor, privately published “the little book,” in 1918. A century later, it’s still a handy guide for those of us who need to get clear, concise information to our clients and other users.

E.B. White and his dog
E.B. White co-authored The Elements of Style, in 1959, and it became commonly known as “Strunk and White.” Source: Wikimedia

One of Strunk’s students eventually became a contributor to The New Yorker magazine, and, in 1957, he described “the little book” as a “forty-three-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.” That writer, Elwyn Brooks “E. B.” White, put together and published, in 1959, an expanded edition of Strunk’s book. The new version, published by Macmillan, included revisions, an introduction, and a new chapter. The publisher, Time, included it in its “All-Time 100 Nonfiction Books,” a compilation of “the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923.”

Just before going off to my first semester of college, I bought the 1979 third edition of Strunk and White’s style manual, from MacMillan Publishing Company. The book and my 38-pound (17 kilo) typewriter rode with me from the suburbs of Chicago to the University of Southern Mississippi. I think the typewriter stayed in my dorm room, but I still use “the little book.”

The Elements of Style: Printed and Reprinted

Since I bought my first copy of The Elements of Style, it’s been reprinted, re-written, re-prettied, and digitalized. My old version serves me just fine, and I’ve not bothered to buy a newer version. The Project Gutenberg has converted Strunk’s 1919 version into a handy eBook, and …

“This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org.”

…says The Project. John Woldemar Cowan (2008), likewise, has produced a newer revision available under a creative commons license, but I’ve not been able to relocate the text.

Strunk originally divided his Elements of Style, into “Elementary Rules of Usage,” “Elementary Principles of Composition,” and “A Few Matters of Form,” “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused,” and “Spelling.” White added material, adapting it to his own preferences and vision of what good style should look like.

With Ten million copies sold from 1959 to 2009 (Roberts 2009), the “little book” and its follow-up editions have held up in the market, and “Strunk and White,” as it’s known, has received both praise  and criticism from publishers and authors alike.

Just how good is “Strunk and White?”

Strunk and White’s books were standard guides for many years. Even so, no one’s king of the hill very long without someone trying to knock him or her down, and Strunk and White were no exceptions (for example, Harley 2008, Geoffrey Pullum [2009; “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” in The Chronicle Review]) blew out his thesaurus and hate quotas on them. He wrote, on the 50th Anniversary of “the little book,” wrote, “Celebrations, readings, and toasts are being held, and a commemorative edition has been released. … I won’t be celebrating.”

Why so bitter, Pullum? Put your shovel down, get out of the graveyard for the morning, and have a piece of cake!

Others, too, have had their shots at the text and its near-centennial roots (e.g., Freeman 2009; Patricia O’Connor and Ben Yagoda, in The New York Times Editors 2009; Stephen Dodson of Language Hat, in Ostle 2015; and others).

Mignon Fogarty, the Grammar Girl, in her piece, “Strunk and White: Does The Elements of Style deserve its hallowed status?” (2009) on QuickAndDirtyTips.com, had her own criticisms of the authors. She, unlike Pullum, though, seems to have actually read, understood, and objectively reviewed the book. She wrote, “the book is largely about style choices, not hard-and-fast rules,” and she went on to quote White’s own introduction:

“Style rules of this sort are, of course, somewhat a matter of individual preference, and even the established rules of grammar are open to challenge.”

Any collection of writer’s guidelines from different editors and publishers testifies that each editor or publisher defines his or her own grammar and style. The Grammar Girl’s Fogarty in the New York Times (2009) reinforced this idea:

“ ‘Strunk and White’ is a useful book, but it shouldn’t be the only book you ever consult, and ‘Strunk and White said so’ is not a sure-fire defense in a style argument.

Michael Leddy (2009c), in the blog, Orange Crate Art, A Container, also took a more objective and studied look at Strunk and White, noting that “Pullum’s take on Strunk and White involves a significant degree of distortion and plain misreading.” Leddy cited examples and, like Fogarty, reviewed Strunk and White with a degree of finesse demonstrating that he had actually read and understood Strunk and White’s work, as well as Pullum’s (2009b). I agree with Leddy “… that Pullum’s disdain for The Elements of Style, the ‘stupid little book,’ often leads him to distort and misread the plain sense of the text.”

Chad Orzel (2009), in On Uncertain Principals: Physics, Politics, Pop Culture, from the Science Blogs website, presented a very practical view of the Elements of Style:

Strunk and White isn’t going to teach you the grammar you need to know to become “head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh” like Geoffrey Pullum, in the same way that Halliday and Resnick isn’t going to teach you the physics you need to know to become a college professor. There will come a time when you need to move beyond the most basic textbooks. But when you’re just starting out, they’ll give you the basic ideas that you need to get your feet under you, and prepare yourself for the next steps.

open book alongside laptop
A century after Strunk’s first version of The Elements of Style, I always have it near my workspace.

I like Strunkenstyle, and it gets me through most of my grammar and style dilemmas. I use some of the other guides too, when five minutes of flipping through Strunk and White doesn’t get me a satisfying answer. The others, more detailed, but bulkier and slower than either Strunk and White or Google, I use about as often as I use the owners manual to my car. That doesn’t mean they’re lousy books, and I’m not going to get bent out of shape and lock myself in my office if someone invites me to celebrate their authors.

Modern copywriters, whether working in electronic or traditional paper media, have a lot of rules to follow. But when it comes to writing effective text that’s clear, understandable, and clean, and enjoyable to read, Strunk and his co-workers have certainly put together a short and effective style guide. I’m keeping mine.

 

References Cited or Otherwise Utilized

Cowan, J. W. 2006, 2007, and 2008. Revised version of the public domain version of Strunk, W. The Elements of Style, and available at (http://www.ccil.org/~cowan/style-revised.html), Reviewed 1 January 2015 and no longer available at this URL.

Fogarty, M. 2009. “Strunk and White: Does The Elements of Style deserve its hallowed status?” on QuickAndDirtyTips.com (http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/strunk-and-white), reviewed 19 September 2016.

Freeman, J. 2005. Frankenstrunk. Boston Globe Archives online (http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/boston-sub/doc/404988131.html?FMT=ABS&FMTS=&type=current&date=Oct%2023,%202005&author=&pub=&edition=&startpage=&desc=). Reviewed 1 January 2015.

Harley, H. 2008. Keep related words, as a rule, together. On the Language Log blog (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4), Reviewed 19 September 2016.

Leddy, M. 2009a. Hardly (adverb) convincing (adjective). On the blog, Orange Crate Art, A Container (http://mleddy.blogspot.com/2009/04/hardly-convincing-adverb-adjective.html), Reviewed 19 September 2016.

Leddy, M. 2009b. More on Pullum, Strunk, and White. On the blog, Orange Crate Art, A Container (http://mleddy.blogspot.com/2009/05/more-on-pullum-strunk-white.html), Reviewed 19 September 2016.

Leddy, M. 2009c. Pullum on Strunk and White. On the blog, Orange Crate Art, A Container (http://mleddy.blogspot.com/2009/04/pullum-on-strunk-and-white.html), Reviewed 19 September 2016.

The New York Times Editors. 2009. Happy Birthday, Strunk and White! On the New York Times website (http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/24/happy-birthday-strunk-and-white/?_r=0), Reviewed 19 September 2016.

Orzel, C. 2009. Strunk and White Is Not for You. On Uncertain Principals: Physics, Politics, Pop Culture, from the Science Blogs website (http://scienceblogs.com/principles/2009/04/21/strunk-and-white-is-not-for-yo/), reviewed 19 September 2016.

Ostle, R. 2015. Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War Over Words Shaped Today’s Language. St. Martin’s Press, as seen on Google Books, Reviewed 19 September 2016.

Pullum, G. 2009. Fifty Years of Stupid Grammar Advice. The Chronicle Review 55 (32): B15. Reproduced online, on The Chronical Review’s, The Chronicle of Higher Education page, at http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497, Reviewed 1 January 2015.

Roberts, S. 2009. ‘The Elements of Style’ Turns 50. Online version of the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/22/books/22elem.html?_r=0), Reviewed 19 September 2016.

Skarda, Erin. 2011). “Elements of Style”. All-TIME 100 Nonfiction Books. TIME, on Time’s website (http://entertainment.time.com/2011/08/30/all-time-100-best-nonfiction-books/slide/elements-of-style-by-strunk-and-white/), reviewed 1 January 2015.

Strunk, W. 1918. The Elements of Style. W. P. Humphrey Private Print Edition, Geneva, NY.

Strunk, W. 1999. Online edition of Strunk, W. 1918. The Elements of Style. W. P. Humphrey Private Print Edition, Geneva, NY., Published Electronically by Bartleby.com (www.bartleby.com/141/). Reviewed 1 January 2015.

Strunk, W., and E.B. White, E. B. 1979. The Elements of Style. Third edition. MacMillan Publishing Co., New York.

Strunk, W., and E.B. White, E. B. 2009. The Elements of Style. Fifth edition. Allyn and Bacon, Boston.

Wikipedia. 2014. The Elements of Style. In Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Elements_of_Style). Reviewed 1 January 2015.

Wikipedia. 2014. William Strunk, Jr.. In Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Strunk,_Jr.). Reviewed 1 January 2015.

Wikipedia. E. B. White. 2014. The Elements of Style. In Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._B._White). Reviewed 1 January 2015.

 


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