29 April 2012

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White - book review


W. Strunk. No attribution in source

Stephen King in On Writing (read my review here) has recommended The Elements of Style more than a dozen times. This was one of the main reasons why I bought this book. But I had forgotten - Stephen King is a bestseller; not the best writer. He has won no Nobels.  
The Elements of Style is a very much confusing book.

Firstly the title is misleading. The title suggests it's a style guide and some people believe it is. It's not. Though the book does contain very few style rules but it cannot be used as a replacement for any standard style guide.
In fact Strunk himself has referred to standard style guides like The Chicago Manual of Style and New Hart's Rules for further reading, in the introduction to the first original edition.

Secondly, I have read it twice but I still can't figure out whether it is a grammar guide, an advice on how
to write good English, a rectification of the common errors of English or something else. All such things seem to have been stacked up into a tiny package which has resulted in incomplete information in many parts. I am surprised why so many people recommend it?

William Strunk was an English professor at Cornell University. He wrote 'the little book' which he required his students to follow. One of his students was Elwyn White who later on became a contributor for The New Yorker. Some thirty-eight years later, Macmillan commissioned White to revise the book so that they may publish it for the general public.
I just cannot understand how can a style guide (or a book that contains some style rules as in our present case) be written for the general public? Style rules vary from organization to organization.

The book begins by saying that possessives should be formed by adding 's, irrespective of the final consonant as in 'Charles's friend'. My objection is that this is a style rule which will vary between different organizations. This is not a grammar rule which is universal. Throughout the book, the authors have dictated style rules in such a fashion that they seem like fixed grammar rules. They have provided no explanations which are grammar rules and which are style rules. For more on this, consider reading this article of Grammar Girl where she has teared the book apart by her clear and stylistic arguments. 

Completeness should never be sacrificed for the sake of conciseness. I won't call it wrong, but I consider it only an inch behind wrong. 

I feel the book is so much popular because:
  1. It teaches grammar in simple language.
  2. At 105 pages it's very concise. 
Most people hate grammar and they wrongly feel that this little book can help them learn all the grammar of the world with so little effort. The book is giving the readers what they want and not what they should want. This is the first rule of business, give people what they want and you will make money. So the book is commercial but surely not educational.

Even the writing advice given in the book sounds dictatorial. The authors speak in a way as though only that is correct what they preach and any author who writes in a different fashion is wrong. In fact Stephen King himself notes in On Writing:
...where it's best to place the most important parts of a sentence. They [Strunk and White] say at the end, and everyone's entitled to his/her opinion, but I don't believe With a hammer he killed Frank will ever replace He killed Frank with a hammer.
If you still wish to read the book, go ahead, I won't stop you, but supplement your reading with some other standard texts on the subject. Else you may get incomplete and false impressions.

Further reading

  1. Bartleby is hosting a free online version of the first edition (1918) of the book which was written by only Strunk. Be aware that the book is now in its fourth edition and thorough changes have been made to it. 
  2. Geoffrey Pullum, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has written a fantastic article in The Chronicle against the book. Some really strong arguments there.
  3. Grammar Girl's article headed Strunk and White is a good read.
  4. Erin Brenner, suggests some alternative books instead of The Elements of Style in Forget Everything Strunk & White Told You.
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