By John E. McIntyre
The Baltimore Sun
12:02 AM EDT, June 28, 2013
A few days ago I disparaged Strunk and White's Elements of Style.*
Not surprisingly, a loyalist was soon heard from, Figaro Jones commenting:
People mischaracterize Elements all the time--including Pullum, and including you. The book doesn't simply lay out one-line pronouncements and leave it at that. The book's "rules"---about preferring the active to the passive voice, about omitting needless words, or about anything else they suggest---are each followed by a good number of examples. It's weird that Pullum misses this, and it's weird that you do: The book is more than just its headings. There are pages and pages of content explicating, qualifying, and offering examples of the rules that are encapsulated in those headings. In other words, its disingenous to suggest that White or Strunk simply drop these little pedantic bomblets like "be clear" or "avoid fancy words," and walk away. They don't. Their examples are clear and helpful, and they alert writers new and old to potential problem areas.
Certainly you have to know something about writing, or to have tried it on your own for a while, for ANY book about writing to be useful to you. I can't imagine your "tyro" getting a lot out of Garner. But tell a new writer, in a few words, about the basics of clarity and concision, and offer a few good examples, and you've probably done him a service.
The anti-EOS crowd has made a straw man of the book. It's nowhere near as laconic or doctrinaire as they like to make out. An objective re-reading will confirm that.
Yeah, yeah. And now as a group of editors on Facebook share recommendations on books of grammar and usage for inexperienced writers, some are chiming in for, you guessed it, Strunk and White.
I could reiterate that The Elements of Style is really not a very useful book for beginning writers. The Strunk part is a limited and dated style sheet, primarily useful if you are a Cornell undergraduate in 1900. People like E.B. White's prose and his affectionate recollection of his teacher, his own advice has become Dale Carnegie for writers, and the whole book is suffused with a nostalgic haze from the readers' youth.
But I shan't bother with that. Instead, I present to you the comment of an impartial observer, Picky, our naturalized Wordvillean from Britain, who pursued his own research into the matter:
Elements of Style is almost unknown in the UK, but fascinated with the hoo-hah about it I bought a copy and discovered ... disappointment. It is unfortunately by no means as dreadful as Professor Pullum's misleadingly hyperbolic comments would have you believe, but then it is much too insignificant a work to attract the sort of worshipful attention it gets, apparently, in the US (it's the unmerited worshipful attention, of course, that gets up Prof Pullum's nose). A guide for young adults that isn't so oddly organised and stiffly traditional is what's needed. What'll you be doing in retirement Mr McI?
*And not for the first time, either.
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