Why Strunk & White still matters (or matter) (or both)

September 19, 2018

Editor's note: Roy is working on a writing book about … well, books on writing. On occasion, with permission from the publisher Little, Brown and Company, Poynter.org will publish drafts of key chapters.

“The Elements of Style” is the great-granddaddy and the great-grandmommy of all books on writing.

I say granddaddy and grandmommy not just to avoid the universal masculine, but because it is now the work of two authors, not one: William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.

A century ago, Strunk was an English professor at Cornell, and White became one of his most famous students, one of the most well-known and versatile writers of the 20th century. A veteran of The New Yorker, White wrote as a reporter, editorialist, correspondent, essayist, poet and novelist. To generations of children and their parents, he was best known as author of “Stuart Little” and “Charlotte’s Web.”

Strunk, the Professor & White, the Author. Their names, conjoined by ampersand, became shorthand for the title of what Strunk and his students knew as the “little book.” That little book became big enough in its influence to have sold more than 10 million copies. Strunk & White.

Almost anything you need to know about The Elements of Style can be found in the 2009 book “Stylized” by Mark Garvey, who describes his work as a “slightly obsessive history.” Any fan of “Strunk & White” will be fascinated by a detailed history of the writing guide, informed by correspondence between White and the publishers, who thought he could add something significant on writing to his teacher’s book, which was more about usage.

Long-time fans of the book, along with its harshest critics, can learn from commentators, gathered by Garvey, who include the likes of Dave Barry (humorist), Sharon Olds (poet) and Adam Gopnik (critic). In oral history style, these well-known authors testify as to how they found the advice in Strunk & White formative, and at certain moments in their lives, deformative.

This essay is not a history, a summary, a paean or a critique. Let’s place it somewhere between an appreciation and a deconstruction. Consider my headline: Why Strunk & White still matters (or matter) (or both). If you take “Strunk & White” as the name of a book, yes, the book still matters. But if you take it as the names of two people, then, yes, the original author and his reviser both still matter. It all matters, and here are some of the reasons why.

It is short. My republished version of the original edition, written and privately published in 1918 by William Strunk Jr. for his Cornell students, is only 52 pages in length. It has seven sections: the rules of usage, principles of composition, matters of form, commonly misused words and expressions, spelling and a final section of exercises. There is a Latin phrase I have always found charming: vade mecum. It denotes a guidebook or manual, but literally means “go with me.” A vade mecum fits in your purse or pocket, and just a second ago, I removed my cell phone from my pocket and replaced it with the 1959 edition, and it fits like a dagger in a sheath. The 12 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary compose the most useful book ever created on our mother tongue, but you can’t take the paper version with you, and I know only one person who has read it from beginning to end (Ammon Shea) and it took him a year. In the world of writing books, unless it’s a reference, the conciser the nicer. Think vade mecum, not magnum opus.

It is inexpensive. In 1970, the year I graduated from Providence College, I purchased a Macmillan paperback edition of “The Elements of Style” for 95 cents. Books, especially college texts, were a LOT cheaper back then than they are now. If you could buy something for less than a buck, you were golden. But I have learned a little trick from some investigative journalists who never fall for the fallacy of the nominal dollar. In other words, I have to calculate what the 1970 book was worth in 2018 dollars. (Be right back.) The answer from one inflation calculator is $6.17.

Let’s see what Amazon is charging for a paperback edition these days. (Be right back.) Looks like $8.95. If in 2018 I can purchase a paperback for less than 10 bucks, I may not feel golden, but this silver feeling ain’t bad. Let’s stipulate now, that digital and used versions of books can make the knowledge in them available to the masses, almost for free.

Publishers have learned that you can make more money on a popular book by creating new editions with new features. I currently own eight editions of "The Elements of Style": a Dover reprint of the 1918 version; a 1934 edition, published by Harcourt, Brace and Co., and edited by a colleague of Strunk named Edward A. Tenney; and six editions of Strunk & White.

The two most peculiar editions are of fairly recent vintage. In 2005, Penguin published an illustrated edition by artist Maira Kalman, where the dominant color palette seems to range from pink to chartreuse. A foreword by Roger Angell calls Strunk & White a “quiet book,” a good description belied by an ill-fitting design. Imagine John Wayne ordering the boys to paint the bunkhouse mauve. Just as weird is the overcompensation of the 50th Anniversary Edition, with its hard black cover and bold gold cover type. Not a vade mecum, to be sure. More like a doorstop for an accountant’s office.

It is popular. Would I eat a McDonald’s burger just because I read a sign that said there have been billions and billions served? Yeah, I might. And I own a half-dozen pair of Converse All-Star sneakers — better known as Chuck Taylors or Chucks — knowing that 800 million pairs have been sold in the last century. When it comes to writing books, popularity matters.

Because of its slim size and low cost, “The Elements of Style” could be assigned as a text by generations of teachers. Those two benefits made it easy to pass along, from student to student, from editor to writer, sometimes from writer to editor.

James Jones, an author who worked with Scribner’s famous editor Max Perkins, once said of him that Perkins prescribed books to his authors like a doctor passing out pill samples. Strunk & White was used that way, as the writer’s little helper. If a writer needed to be more concise, more organized, a little plainer? Here, just take two of these, a Strunk AND a White, and write something in the morning.

It comes from an academic perspective, and then a professional one. One of the traditional distinctions in the literary world is the one between academic writing and professional writing. As a grad student, I sat in a meeting in which a group of professors were making fun of the prose of a journalist of high reputation. Whether they were motivated by jealousy or simply belonged to a different “discourse community,” a different club of readers and writers, I didn’t see their point.

So what might have been discordant became harmonic when the popular author, White, agreed to participate in the creation of a new version of his professor’s old book. Two aspects of the origins story are illustrative. It was 1958 when a college friend sent White a copy of Strunk’s “little book.” Not only did White not have his own copy, but he responds that he had forgotten all about the book, though his memories of his professor were vivid.

In other words, his professor’s self-published guide book was not formative, at least not in a direct way. White was by disposition uncomfortable with technical grammar and the conventional approaches to usage. He had already been famously dismissive of the work of Rudolf Flesch and his readability tests — “Writing is an act of faith,” wrote White, “not a trick of grammar.” In a life of White written by Melissa Sweet for young readers, she notes, “Even though Andy (White’s common name) had agreed to work on the revised edition of ‘The Elements of Style’ (under the condition that it stayed true to Strunk’s original text) he did not consider himself a grammarian. ‘When I finally can’t take any more grammar,’ he wrote, ‘I hop on my bicycle and go scorching up and down the highway to remove the cobwebs.’”

Some of the harshest criticism of Strunk & White, the book, is that it favors a style of writing — lean and undecorated — that is no longer in fashion. To the extent that Strunk focuses more on conventional usage, he is a target of descriptive linguists who can bring to the table countless examples of canonical writers who are assertively unStrunky in their usage. (These linguists amuse other language experts, such as Bryan Garner, who note with some glee that the descriptivists are more likely than the common writer to write prescriptively, sometimes in refereed journals, and even on websites such as Language Log, where descriptivism is the state-sponsored religion.)

If we take punctuation as an example, it’s possible that I developed my preferences from Professor Strunk. These include a devotion for the so-called “serial comma” and the use of apostrophe +s to form the possessive singular, even when the noun (with a few exceptions) ends in the letter "s." So it is Wes’s gun, not Wes’ as the stylebook of the Associated Press would have you observe. Somehow “faith, hope, and love” feels more Pauline with that comma before “and” — again, not to AP, though. When I read a British newspaper and see the helpless little comma floating on the page outside the quotations marks, I do want to toss it a lifeline and pull it into harbor. So we scroll on, writing against the tide, borne back to a past we did not invent, when other writers and editors from other writing clubs made these decisions for us.

Professor Strunk admired Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and his books on reading and writing, which tended to focus more on rhetoric and literature than grammar and usage. So let’s put a spotlight on a rhetorical strategy that I teach often to students of all ages and with practical effect. It comes as Strunk’s #18: Place emphatic words of a sentence at the end. My version of that is Writing Tool #2: Order words for emphasis. As a favorite example — high school teachers refer to it as a “mentor text” — I note that Shakespeare, being a far better writer than I, announced in “Macbeth” that “The Queen, my lord, is dead.” (I would have rendered it, “The Queen is dead, my lord,” in an effort to keep subject and verb together. The Bard prefers placing an important word [Queen] at the beginning and the most important word — the news, if you will — at the end, right next to what Yanks call the period, but the Brits call the full stop.)

This strategy of emphasis, I learned from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, can be traced back at least two millennia to that other famous Q, Quintillian, the Roman teacher of rhetoric.

On my re-reading of Strunk, I discovered the professor took the strategy a step further, to my delight, and on to my workbench: “The principle that the proper place for what is to be made most prominent is the end applies equally to the words of a sentence, to the sentences of a paragraph, and to the paragraphs of a composition.” That had not occurred to me until I read it a week ago, and I now recognize its value in my writing and look forward to testing it out.

E.B. White made “The Elements of Style” a 10-million copy seller. He did this by three distinctive contributions.

1) He attached his celebrity to the work. By 1959 White was among America’s most popular writers, and that notoriety gave the work an aura of literary hipness that it lacked from its academic origins.

2) He lionized the author. His New Yorker essay, which became an introduction, was a compelling profile of a character — direct, persistent, plainspoken, devoted to a cultivated use of the English language in the public interest. This passage by White — though a little wordy — stands out as memorable:

“Omit needless words!” cries the author on page 39, and into that imperative Will Strunk really put his heart and soul. In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of have shortchanged himself — a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had out-distanced the clock. Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times. When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, ‘Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”

In an earlier work, I mischievously rewrote that passage to omit needless words. Why do need “coat” to modify “lapels,” for example? Where else would his lapels be? It would not be the first time the student (White) silently defied the master (Strunk) to create sharp and interesting prose.

3) And, finally, White earns the right to co-authorship (and equal royalties) with a section called “An Approach to Style,” a brief introduction with a list of 21 reminders. As I re-read them, I realize that a few are stuck in my mind, and they speak to me, like Jiminy Cricket, when I am tempted toward either laziness or exhibitionism. So I try to “Work from a suitable design,” although that design might come after much exploratory writing. I avoid qualifiers, except when I need them. And, because my ear is not that good, I can count on two hands the times I’ve tried to use dialect.

White’s advice is rhetorical. Applied, it creates what passes for “style.” I follow the advice of Don Murray, who preferred the word “voice,” arguing that style was like something you buy off the rack, while voice was authentic.

If you prefer style remember — under the two names Strunk and White — that the word has two discrete meanings, not quite antonyms, but more like those contronyms (like “cleave” and “cleave”) which can mean two opposite things depending on context.

In the Strunkian sense, “style” denotes an agreed upon usage — writing “Charles’s” rather than “Charles’” — because we have agreed that it is better. We turn it from a choice into a convention, a social contract within a group or a culture. For consistency and clarity — to avoid confusion or distraction — we decide to do things the same way.

In the Whitean sense, “style” is achieved when a writer expresses herself with an identifiable distinctiveness. E. B. White did not want to sound like anyone else in his writing. He wanted to sound like himself. He was greatly rewarded for the accomplishment. Both these meanings of style can co-exist. If you need reminders how, I know a little book you can own. Re-read it. Learn why it still matters. Why they still matter. Strunk & White was the first text for millions that persuaded reluctant writers that the writing craft was not an act of magic, but the applied use of both rules and tools.

 

Sidebar:

Early in my journalism career — 1981, to be exact — I typed a letter and mailed it to E.B. White. I wanted to write a small story celebrating White’s 80th birthday. I did not expect to easily reach such a famous author, but I typed out the letter and mailed it to him at the New Yorker. Knowing it might be hard for him to write a letter back, I listed a few questions, including “What question do you get most often from children?” and “What are you working on now?”

To my surprise the letter came back to me, exactly as I had typed it out, but with brief handwritten answers in the margins. I no longer have the letter — more about that in a minute — but as I recall he wrote that the question he gets most often from children is “How do you write a book?” or “How long does it take to write a book?” As for my question on what he was working on, he responded: “A secret project.” To my birthday wish, he answered, “Thank you for that.”

I had the letter pinned to a bulletin board. When I was asked to donate a personal item to an auction at a journalism convention, I donated the letter. And that was that, until more than 25 years later when a woman showed up at a writing workshop in DC and had the letter, now framed, to show me, asking me to sign it on the back to verify its provenance. Maybe it will show up some day on "Antiques Roadshow."