When Will We Retire Strunk and White?

Strunk and White Elements of Style I suppose it was inevitable. I mean here I am, teaching a course filled with government writers. I should have expected that Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style would resurface as the style guide of choice. But still, I had hoped that after nearly 100 years, some of its popularity would have waned.

I mean, after all, the little book has spawned numerous printings, an illustrated version, a rap song, and an opera. When will people realize that it’s no longer a viable resource but an object of popular culture, nothing to be taken too seriously, something at which we poke fun (like this tortured clause, of which its authors would certainly approve)?

I just keep thinking that after Geoffrey Pullum’s damning article, The Elements of Style’s failures would have been recognized by now. Strunk’s inadequate understanding of grammar, the book’s poor advice, its inconsistencies – all of these have been brought to light. And yet, for some reason, people still cling to the notion that Strunk and White will resolve their editorial dilemmas, that it is THE resource to have on the shelf, and that nothing compares to the incomparable Elements of Style.

So let me once again do what I can to dispel the fog of mystique surrounding the tiny little tome, first by shining the clear light of day on its achievement.

In 1919 when William Strunk, Jr. penned the first edition of The Elements of Style, it was a revolutionary accomplishment. Compared to its contemporaries, it has three undeniable virtues. The Elements of Style is concise, accessible, and direct, unlike, say, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which is elaborate, pedantic, and ambulatory.

Those virtues are tarnished by E. B. White’s additions of 1957. His “Approach to Style” lengthens the book by nearly half its original size, and suggestions such as “do not affect a breezy manner” or “prefer the standard to the offbeat” are neither accessible nor direct (73, 81).

These are what we in the world of education call COIK, Clear Only If Known, as in this example:

“Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo-Saxon words.” (p. 77, 4th ed.)

A skilled writer will understand what a breezy manner, an offbeat language, or the Latin tongue are, where to find them, and how to replace them. A struggling writer will not. The skilled writer will therefore read Strunk and White with delight, nodding his or her head in agreement, pleased to have found a kindred soul in the pages of this slim volume. The struggling writer will pick up the book only to be befuddled and will put it down certain that clear communication is a gift with which he or she was not born.

And that’s my real concern with the ubiquity of Strunk and White – what is its value for the struggling writer in today’s linguistic climate? What was once concise now appears enigmatic. What was once accessible now seems exclusionary. What was once direct now reads as though it were persnickety.

Why is that? It’s not because the rules have changed. We should still “[e]nclose parenthetic expressions between commas” and “express coordinate ideas in similar form” (2, 26). It’s because our context is different.

nun with a rulerLanguage use is no longer the purview of a “white-haired professor” “forcibly” delivering advice with a “kindly lash” (Introduction xv). That may well be a memory on which E. B. White looks back with fondness, but it is a vision which would make many a writer of today – particularly those who write professionally, not creatively – shudder.

Writing is hard, as the book’s foreword acknowledges. Mandates about the clumsy, pretentious devices we would best omit do not make it any easier. Writing becomes easier when a skilled practitioner shares the reasons writing is hard and offers practical suggestions to make it less so. Strunk and White succeed at this occasionally, but not often enough to be of value to today’s writer.

What has been your experience with Strunk and White? Do you have any favorite (or not so favorite) pieces of advice from The Elements of Style? Do you have a reference work you prefer? Let us know!


  1. Yes, yes, triply yes. Even so-called serious writing today is far breezier than would have been acceptable to Strunk, White, Samuel Johnson, or any other antedeluvian stylist. Reminds me of when I was studying literature and John Barth wondered why most contemporary writers were acting as if the 20th century had never happened. Same here. I vote to have style guides to suit today’s language.

  2. Michelle,

    I always appreciate your posts. But I’m curious, is “Elements of Style” relevant if we ignore White?

    Thanks, Bill.

    • Hello Bill, and thanks for stopping by. To answer your question, yes, and no. White’s chapter on Style is part practical advice, part personal preference set within the context of the mid-20th century. Some of it is still relevant, so I hesitate to throw it out altogether. My concern is not so much with the content as with the …. dare I say it – style.

      Both Strunk and White adopt a tone that simultaneously chastises an audience of presumed professionals while assuming that audience knows more about writing than I believe, based on my own teaching experience, they might do in today’s writing climate. I feel that’s unfair. How can you chastise an audience that hasn’t received a formal writing education in the first place?

      Many (not all) of the principles set forth in Elements of Style are still relevant. But I do object to its tone.

  3. In the end, rules are like monarchic rulers, they are meant to reign, not govern. As for me, I prefer principles. More natural, less regimented, they absorb the contradictions set by rules. My writer of choice when it comes to grammar is Duke U. Professor, George Gopen. I recommend his book “Expectations – writing from a reader’s perspective”.

  4. These are some harsh words for Messiers Strunk and White, Michelle. But having followed each of your posts on the subject, I understand where it’s coming from.

    Strunk and White doesn’t guide so much as lead (with all the best intentions I believe), and that’s a dangerous distinction, especially as communication evolves. But as you said, a skilled writer may be able to see through this rather than being prescriptive.

    What books would you recommend instead?

    • Ah Shakirah, that is the question du jour, is it not? I thought I would evade it in my post, but I should have known that a skillful reader such as yourself would have found me out!

      Let me preface this by saying that style guides are dangerous. They fall in that grey area of language, where personal preference meets prescription. And their authors should therefore be wary of the influence they wield.

      My personal preference is for those written by committee – Chicago Manual of Style, Modern Language Association, Associated Press, American Psychological Association – because I feel there is less danger of serious and long-lasting damage being inflicted upon our language, which is beautiful because of its flexibility.

      There are many great guides out there, but they are each stamped (and troubled) by the personalities of their creator. So I think I’ll hold my tongue, and allow each reader to consider his or her own linguistic personality before deciding.

  5. Stanley Dambroski says

    Interesting post, Michelle.

    What attracts people such as your government students to S&W is the listing of prescriptions–people love that. What worries me is that your students, following or thinking they are following S&W, are likely ruining other writers whom they edit in their work. I had a speech on this subject published in Vital Speeches of the Day a couple of years ago.

    There is a book whose title I love: Adios Strunk and White. It was a textbook in a course I co-authored at the University of Maryland University College; my co-author chose it. Though I liked the sentiment, I thought that it, like S&W, would benefit the experienced writer rather than a developing writer–the COIK you mention.
    Students liked the book, I think because we can be fooled into thinking we grasp abstract and intuitive features–probably the same reason for the love of S&W.

  6. Was S&W written for the struggling writer or the well-educated writer seeking to refine his or her skills and delivery? (Regardless, the information on the passive voice, while excellent in intention, is faulty in content.) COIK is true here, and that, perhaps, gives the clue about the intended audience.

    • S&W was written for the well educated, period. At the start of the 20th century, a well-educated person was de facto a skilled reader and writer, having the leisure to indulge in both activities and the necessity to do so, since regardless of profession – law or medicine – the only way to learn it was to read. Internships and practicums were a way of life, but they were supplemented by heavy study.

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