Mighty Red Pen

April 14, 2009

‘Elements of Style’ 50th anniversary

This week is the 50th anniversary of a text many of know and love or know and love to hate: The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, often just known as “Strunk & White.”

In “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” Geoffrey K. Pullum writes,

The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students’ grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.

In “Clever Horses: Unhelpful Advice from ‘Elements of Style’,” Jan Freeman writes,

The least we can do is to teach college students the current language prejudices, not the ones their great-grandparents nurtured. It would be simple to modernize this part of “Elements”; both the publishers who neglect it and the teachers who accept it without protest are helping to promote mediocrity.

Whew, some tough reviews for such a tiny book. I’d be interested to hear what other folks think of The Elements of Style. Are you hoping the book will fade into obscurity or looking forward to another 50 of keepin’ it real with Strunk & White?

Hat tip to One Good Move.



  1. I’m better at being a critic than being an advocate, so it’s hard to promote the little book. But I do like it. Reading these critiques, I wonder what they hate about it. As the little book would teach, “Use definite, specific, concrete language.”

    Comment by Frank Drone — April 15, 2009 @ 11:38 am | Reply

  2. My problem with Elements of Style’s grammatical prescriptions is that they are unsupported. For instance, don’t begin a sentence with “however”, don’t use singular “they”, use “persons” instead of “people”, don’t use nonrestrictive “which”, don’t use “none” with plural verbs, use the active voice, less/fewer, etc… none of these rules are followed consistently by good writers.

    Their advice about the active voice is weird, as Pullum notes. Judging by the examples they give, they’re not really saying “use the active voice”, since most of the example sentences are already in the active voice. What they’re really saying is “don’t use the verb ‘be'”.

    The book was written as a guide for college students, and it might have been a good guide for writing essays in 1959. But nowadays it’s marketed to all writers, but would need to be substantially revised to be appropriate to all writers today.

    Comment by goofy — April 16, 2009 @ 9:36 am | Reply

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