One last time

June 28, 2013|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

I am taken to task in comments on the most recent post on Strunk and White by Figaro Jones:

Glad I could provide half your column today. :)

"Yeah, yeah" does not an argument make. You haven't  addressed the substance of my comment at all.  [JEM: I would have thought it self-evident that "yeah, yeah" was not intended to address the substance of an argument.] My point was that you, and people like Pullum, pretend that S&W offer only glib, useless one-liners: Be Clear, Omit Needless Words, Avoid Fancy Words, and all the rest, when, in fact, the book's rules are almost all accompanied by multiple examples that show the rules in action. You can argue the rules on their merits--is omitting needless words a good idea or not--but you can't say S&W just drop it there. That particular rule is, in fact, followed by nearly  two pages of explanation and examples. How is that useless for a beginning writer? You and Pullum are reacting to an imagined version of S&W, not the actual book.

And what parts of Strunk's sections are specific only to 1900 Cornell undergrads? He offers clear, perfectly useful advice (again, with lots of examples) on such fundamental topics as dealing with parenthetic expressions; standard use of commas, colons, dashes, and other punctuation; matching subject-verb number; pronoun case; and much more. Fairly timeless stuff there, John. Is the book limited? Sure it is--it's tiny. No one, least of all its authors, ever claimed that Elements was a complete guide to English style or that it was sufficient, on its own, for teaching young people to write.

Young writers of any era benefit most from (a) wide reading, (b) practice, and (c) sound fundamental advice on matters of mechanics, structure, and clarity. Plenty of educators in past decades adopted that approach and found Elements a useful ally in the effort. And plenty of students responded favorably to it.

And while we're at it, what IS the pedagogy that's turning out such "brilliant" student writing today? Think about the burgeoning need for remedial writing classes in colleges across the country, and tell me that high school comp instruction is doing a better job than it was thirty or forty years ago, when Strunk, White, and the dastardly Elements of Style were at the height of their popularity. 

So, you will be pleased to learn, I will make a couple of comments and retire this subject.

Picky's shrewd observation gets to the heart of my complaint: "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)."

The Elements of Style, which I enjoyed reading at eighteen, is in itself a largely harmless little book. But what happened to E.B. White is the terrible fate that W.H. Auden identified in his elegy for Yeats: "he became his admirers."

It is White's admirers who have made the Little Book a talisman, a repository of "timeless stuff," a vade mecum for writers; and the book cannot take the strain. I acknowledge that there are people who love it passionately (just as I am aware that there are people who unaccountably love Atlas Shrugged) and think that it has helped their writing. They are welcome to think so; this is America.

But, for reasons that Professor Pullum, Picky, and I, among others, have given, I don't find it a useful book for inexperienced writers, and I don't recommend it to my students. It has its legions of worshipers, who are not to be swayed by criticism, and we shall go our separate ways.

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