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In Defense of Strunk and White

Posted by Josh Rothman  February 2, 2011 12:29 PM

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William Strunk and E.B. White's The Elements of Style will be familiar to almost anyone who's taken a writing class in the last forty years. Even if you buy the wonderful illustrated edition - the one I ask my students to buy - "Strunk and White," as it's often called, remains a short, decisive, prescriptive little book. Its first half consists of pithy rules for good writing, put together by Strunk, an English professor; its second contains a longish essay about style by the great New Yorker writer, E. B. White.


E. B. White, of Strunk and White.

Since it was first published in 1959, The Elements of Style has become the de facto style guide for American prose writers, urging them towards greater concision, simplicity, and unpretentiousness. It's so dominant, in fact, that occasional revolt is inevitable. Writing in the Financial Times, the gifted novelist Adam Haslett argues that the book "leads young writers to be cautious and dull," and that "minimalist style becomes minimalist thought." It's time, he says, to do away with the "Strunkian superego forever whispering in your ear - cut, cut, cut."

The book's "bias for plain statement," Haslett argues, has affected not just everyday prose, but has shaped literary prose, too. "If the history of the American sentence were a John Ford movie," he suggests, "its second act would conclude with the young Ernest walking into a saloon, finding an etiolated Henry James slumped at the bar in a haze of indecision, and shooting him dead." Strunk and White are his co-conspirators: they've helped to usher in an era in which sentences are functional, rather than beautiful.

Is Haslett right? Not, I think, about literature. Set aside the fact that it seems far-fetched to blame (or, for that matter, to credit) Strunk and White for sweeping changes in American literary prose style - the larger fact is that the supposed simplification of American literary prose is overblown, anyway. Raymond Carver might have been writing Strunkian sentences, but Ellison, Nabokov, Updike, and Bellow certainly didn't "cut, cut, cut." (That's not say they weren't urged to, of course - Nabokov, for instance, defended the "sinuosity" of his sentences against The New Yorker's Katherine White, explaining that he "didn't want those draw bridges lowered which I have taken such pains to lift.") Minimalism, ultimately, is just one strain among many in American literature. Many American writers are like Cormac McCarthy: they work with both sides of the aisle, drawing simultaneously from Melville's American ornateness and from Hemingway's minimalism.

So Strunk and White have hardly steered the course of American literary style. Meanwhile, as far as everyday, non-literary writing goes, the book is tremendously useful, especially for writers who are just starting out. If you are still struggling to put your thoughts into words, then The Elements of Style is a godsend. Strunk and White take the same tack as E.L. Doctorow, who wrote that "writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." Simple sentences get you where you want to go, one mile at a time. Haslett suggests, as an alternative, Stanley Fish's How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One; Fish, he explains, is a world-class literary critic, "a sentence connoisseur" who offers "a far richer introduction to the capacities of English language sentences." But beginning writers often find simplicity more helpful than sinuosity.

Why is there so much hostility towards The Elements of Style? Almost all writers struggle with the traditions they've inherited, and come to see yesterday's do-gooders as today's oppressors. E.B. White, it's easy to forget, wasn't a proponent of boring, "minimal" writing, but in fact a supremely flexible writer, able to produce jaunty "Talk of the Town"-style prose, children's books (he wrote Charlotte's Web), and essays of extraordinary literary beauty, like "The Ring of Time" (reprinted in Phillip Lopate's "Art of the Personal Essay"). He wasn't an enemy of literariness. He saw, instead, that beginning writers face two struggles. On the one hand, there is lazy inattentiveness; on the other, there's a self-conscious sense of 'literary style,' which can stand in the way of a beginning writer's progress. His suggestions about finding a middle way are as useful now as they were in 1959.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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