Mighty Red Pen

May 4, 2009

More on Strunk and White

Filed under: Lit review — mighty red pen @ 7:27 pm
Tags: , , ,

Oh, I keep meaning to share two more tidbits I came across regarding the 50th anniversary of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

Check out “Happy Birthday, Strunk and White,” in which Patricia O’Conner, Stephen Dodson, Ben Yagoda, Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl), and the seemingly ubiquitous (on this topic, anyway) Geoffrey K. Pullum each opine on the book. Here is O’Conner:

Rereading Strunk and White on its 50th birthday is like meeting an old lover and realizing how much you’ve outgrown him. Things have changed, little book, and you have not, or not enough.

Oh, the first 14 pages are still the gospel truth. And I still love the things I loved most—the “Elementary Principles of Composition” and the reminders at the end of the book. Any young person prone to getting tattoos might consider having a few of these permanently engraved where they can readily be seen: Omit needless words. Use concrete language. Be clear. Avoid fancy words. Revise and rewrite. Pure gold.

But much of the grammar and usage advice in the rest of the book is baloney, to use a good concrete word.

You may also wish to check out “The Elements of Style Turns 50. If You’re Celebrating, Make Sure to Use the Active Voice” by Dennis Baron over at Web of Language. Baron discusses some related biographical information regarding Messrs. Strunk and White and concludes:

E. B. White is acknowledged to be a pretty good writer. That’s because he didn’t follow the rules that he and his mentor, Will Strunk, laid down in The Elements of Style. It’s fine to read that book, and to celebrate its anniversary. But no rule book or just-add-water instant prose recipe can substitute for the trial and error, the variety and experiment, the exactness and the uncertainty, the occasional success and the many failures, that writers face every day if we’re doing our job right.

I haven’t done an exhaustive search, but I can’t say as I have come across anyone who outright defends Strunk and White. Know of anyone (or maybe you do yourself)? Let’s hear it.



  1. There’s this, altho imo it doesn’t do a good job

    Comment by goofy — May 6, 2009 @ 8:25 am | Reply

  2. Since you asked:


    These posts are more a matter of looking closely at Geoffrey Pullum’s arguments than of praising Strunk and White without qualification.

    Comment by Re: Strunk and White — May 6, 2009 @ 12:53 pm | Reply

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