Another Look at Strunk and White

Strunk and White

The “Unkillable Zombie”

Occasionally, it’s worth reading what authorities have to say about other supposed authorities. When we consult a language handbook, it usually doesn’t occur to us to second-guess the author. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, quite possibly the most celebrated handbook in the United States, offers an instructive example of why we should not be so trusting.

Linguist Geoffrey Pullum, based at the University of Edinburgh, has written bitter denunciations of Elements. First in an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education and then in more elaborate form for English Today, Pullum systematically examines several of the guide’s pronouncements and shows how they are frequently based only on prejudice or, worse, reflect the authors’ severe misunderstanding of English grammar.

To read Pullum’s work is to watch a career linguist eviscerate a venerable English professor and his student, the renowned E.B. White. Not only does he show their incompetence in the rules they cite, but also he quotes acclaimed authors doing precisely what Struck and White say should be avoided.

Is there anything redeeming in the book, then? Not according to Pullum, who calls the vaunted guide an “unkillable zombie,” “one of the worst things to have happened to English language education in America in the past century.” It’s not going to show up on his reading list any time soon, in other words.

Pullum’s main objections are related to grammar, and he dismisses comments about style as “vapid” or “obvious.” Perhaps so, but the guide’s focus on conciseness has a beneficial influence, and a few of its tips can help less experienced writers tighten sentences. Quite possibly, Pullum overlooks this because he is more offended at the more egregious problems in the manual delivered in a prescriptive tone. And these objections deserve to be taken seriously. The Elements of Style is not the hallowed text it was once though to be. But if it can help writers gain awareness of the value of clarity and conciseness, then, if used judiciously, it can have some value.



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