[lg policy] Strunk at 100: A Centennial Not to Celebrate

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri Jun 22 10:43:58 EDT 2018


 Strunk at 100: A Centennial Not to Celebrate

[image: strunkatbartleby]
<http://www.chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/files/2018/06/strunkatbartleby.jpg>


No one seems to have explicitly noted that this is the centennial year of a
little book that has (unaccountably) become extremely famous. Professor
William Strunk at Cornell University had it privately published in 1918 at
a press owned by W.F. Humphrey in Geneva, N.Y., under the title *The
Elements of Style*. Much of its text survives in the many subsequent
revised versions, four of them since 1959 in an expanded and altered form
to which E.B. White added his name. Right across America, students in
undergraduate colleges and at graduate and professional schools are told to
study this work and obey its edicts.

It is unforgivably lazy for instructors to continue directing 21st-century
students to a text on the English language written by a man who learned it
in the 19th century. (Strunk was born in 1869, when General Custer still
had half a decade of successful military service ahead of him.) Language
change in matters of grammar is not at all rapid, but even so, a century is
long enough for noticeable evolution. We should not be teaching our
students to write like people did during the First World War.

Despite its title, Strunk’s book hardly touched the topic of style. Few
have noted this, but White acknowledges it in the first sentence of his
added chapter (Chapter 5, “An Approach to Style,” in the 1959 revision and
later editions): “Up to this point, the book has been concerned with what
is correct, or acceptable, in the use of English.” Strunk covered basics
like the genitive suffix (*’s*), where to put commas, separating topics
through paragraph structure, and how to hyphenate at ends of lines (Strunk
assumes you’re using a typewriter!). He offers various ill-explained
general maxims about using positives not negatives, omitting needless
words, avoiding loose sentences, expressing co-ordinate ideas in similar
form, keeping related words together, not switching tenses, putting
emphatic words at ends of sentences, and sticking to the active voice
(Strunk was one of the very first writers on usage to express the now
tediously ubiquitous disapproval of passives
<http://ling.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/passive_loathing.html>), and treats a very
few minor technical matters of capitalization, citation, and quotation. The
remaining chapter, “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused,” is just a
potpourri of words Strunk disliked:

   - *Clever* “has been greatly overused.”
   - *Dependable* is a “needless substitute for *reliable*, *trustworthy*.”
   - *However* is “not to come first in its sentence or clause” (see my
   discussion here
   <https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2012/06/07/the-however-myth>
   ).
   - *People* “is not to be used with words of number, in place of *persons*.”
   (Strunk gives this ridiculously childish argument against the entirely
   standard use of *people* as a plural: “If of ‘six people’ five went
   away, how many ‘people’ would be left?”.)
   - *Respectively* “may usually be omitted with advantage”; it may be
   needed “in geometrical proofs” but “should not appear in writing on
   ordinary subjects.”
   - *System* is “frequently used without need.”
   - *They* should never be used in contexts like *anyone who thinks they
   might qualify*; Strunk’s firm recommendation is to use *anyone who
   thinks he might qualify*.

These stipulations about alleged misuse are absurd. No competent writer
could take them seriously.

College syllabi often point students to the Bartleby.com online
reproduction of the original 1918 text
<http://www.bartleby.com/141/strunk3.html> (it is out of copyright), so
they don’t have to go to the college bookstore for it. A reproduction of
Strunk’s entire text (slightly revised at a couple of points) constitutes
nearly 20 percent of N.M. Gwynne’s dreadful book *Gwynne’s Grammar*. But
anyone who defends the peddling of Strunk’s century-old clunker on the
grounds that the revision by E.B. White has modernized and improved it
should think again. David Russinoff, who is much more favorably inclined
toward Strunk than I am, argues cogently in his excellent essay “Strunk vs.
White: An Analysis of Authorship
<http://www.russinoff.com/david/usage/strunk.html>” that White’s changes
and additions made Strunk’s book significantly worse. My article “The Land
of the Free and *The Elements of Style* (published in *English Today*;
browsable
version here <http://lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/LandOfTheFree.html>) also
criticizes White for ridiculous pothering, atavistic prejudices, and
outright falsehoods.

We should not be sending students to a text as myopic and antiquated as *The
Elements of Style*, not in any edition. To do so is pedagogically lazy,
intellectually unconscionable, and budgetarily miserly (colleges should be
employing intelligent writing tutors who have taken a course in the
structure of English). Yet right across the curriculum, professors
unthinkingly recommend obeisance to Strunk’s mediocre compilation of
don’t-do-this maxims (which I suspect in many cases the professors barely
remember and have never examined closely). A hundred years of this is
enough. Especially since there are modern alternatives, like *Style: Toward
Clarity and Grace* by Joseph Williams and *The Sense of Style* by Steven
Pinker.
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-- 
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 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com
http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~haroldfs/

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