Nearly every writer of my generation has been influenced by The Elements of Style, the Cornell philologist William Strunk’s “little book” revised by his student E. B. White and published by Macmillan fifty years ago. I recognize most of my idiosyncrasies in the seven Elementary Rules of Usage that open the book—anyone whose name ends in s is going to appreciate the rule “Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ’s”—but leafing through the book again after three decades I am struck by how small an impact the remainder of it has had.
In the section on Misused Words and Expressions, I see that I have heavily boxed the paragraph on “Relevant. Irrelevant.”
In 1972 I may have been trying to distance myself, at least stylistically, from the student protestors, but a young man of twenty is not fully conscious, and therefore not fully in command, of his language. The misused words and expressions of his youth become fixed forever in his literary armature. In boggling at the persistent fame of Lionel Trilling, I wrote recently in Commentary: “After all, liberal anti-Communism, the cause Trilling was most closely identified with, is no longer relevant.”
Forgive me for indulging this stretch of literary autobiography. I include it to illustrate a point. The Elements of Style, fifty years on, can now be seen more clearly for what it is: namely, a historical document, a manifesto of literary prejudices, rather than a trustworthy handbook of grammar and composition.
Consider its sixteenth commandment of style: “Be clear.” Could there be anything less clear? Of what does clarity consist? How is it to be achieved? The explanation helps not at all:
In reviewing a history of the book, Jennifer Balderama says that “critics who malign Elements miss the point,” at least when they describe it as “pedantic, limiting, hypocritical, repressive. . . . Think about it: a humorless man wouldn’t write about radiant pigs and talking spiders, and a strident prescriptivist wouldn’t declare language ‘perpetually in flux . . . a living stream.’ ”
But this misses the point. The larger criticism is not that Strunk and White are prigs, but that they mistake a distinct and peculiar style, suited to a distinct and peculiar kind of writing, for the universal good. And this accounts for their book’s small impact, despite its perennial popularity. In writing, there is no universal good. There is only the distinct and peculiar. Anyone who depends upon The Elements of Style will be at best a disciple who has been taught whimsy in the name of authority, but he will never be a good writer until he removes Strunk and White from his reference shelves and consigns the “little book” to literary history.