Strunk & White

When it comes to English usage I live a conflicted life.

Intellectually I am a descriptivist: English (indeed all widely spoken languages) is a living language, constantly in flux, its written form racing to catch the patterns of speech of linguistic pioneers – those who are inventing and borrowing and just generally expressing themselves. From this point of view, the job of the lexicographer is to document usage, while the job of the grammarian is to analyse the new constructions and understand their origins.

Emotionally though I am a prescriptivist – an enforcer of rules: I object to mis-placed punctuation, make jokes about malapropisms, and generally bask in a self-righteous glow when it comes to matters of usage for I Am Right. There are rules which need to be followed to express yourself clearly, and I am a colossal pedant who constantly struggles to rein in the shouty voice.

It was therefore an emotional purchase when I bought Strunk & White, that little book of poison masquerading as writing advice. When I read it, though, my intellectual side recoiled – its advice was at best fatuous and trite, but it was also often wrong and just as often ignored in the text of the book itself.

The definitive take down of this tragically influential book is from Geoffrey Pullum, an acerbic linguist who contributes to Language Log amongst many other more relevant achievements. I’m not going to repeat Mr Pullum’s analysis here, but I will wait while you go and read it.

50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice

Welcome back. Fun, wasn’t it?

I really do understand the allure of Strunk & White – it is small and it is definite, but English is neither of those things and relying on such a slight book as your only reference is not learning to write well – it is abrogating your responsibility to learn your craft.

There are better books out there to learn from.

Or just read good writing to see how it is done, and bad writing to see how it should not.

In the latter category, you could always start with Strunk & White.

4 Replies to “Strunk & White”

  1. Duncan,

    Thanks for this write-up. Delightul to read–and useful. I read it in time to realize that I need to pull something from the book I’m about to publish. Whew!

    Love the Pullam critique. I’ve read others, but you’re right, his beats all.

    For all their faults, Strunk and White taught me basics that have served me well. I won’t be removing “Elements” from my shelf any time soon. But I agree with your parting words. The best instruction comes from reading–both the good and the bad–and considering what makes it so.

    1. Dunx says:

      Thank you, Marcia – I’m really curious what it was you had to change! I am glad to have been able to help, in whatever small way I may.

  2. P.S. I just looked up the Grammar Girl post that I mentioned to you yesterday. Turns out to be her response to Pullam’s critique. Worth a read: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/strunk-and-white.aspx

    1. Dunx says:

      Yes, definitely worth a read – thank you for the pointer. Any day where I broadly agree with Grammar Girl is a good day.

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