Monday, November 02, 2009

The Elements of Style

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.

Use these words to express a precise relationship, not a vague discontent. “My history course doesn’t seem relevant.” Relevant to what? A student who finds society out of joint, or himself out of joint, takes refuge in the word irrelevant, using it as a general term of disapprobation. He damns history and wipes out the past with a single stroke.Was this fit of pique included in the first edition? My copy is the second, released in 1972. And in 1972, relevance was a widespread student demand. The students were not disgusted, as Strunk and White would have it, with courses that were “curiously unrelated to the spectacle of the present.” The word had for them a political valence. What was irrelevant was without direct and immediate political effect. It was curiously disengaged from the needs of the hour.

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 The Elements of Style, fifty years on, can now be seen more clearly for what it is: namely, a historical document, a manifesto of literary prejudices, rather than a trustworthy handbook of grammar and composition.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:Clarity is not the prize in writing, nor is it always the principal mark of a good style. There are occasions when obscurity serves a literary yearning, if not a literary purpose, and there are writers whose mien is more overcast than clear. But since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue.But it is not true that “writing is communication.” Some writing is communication, or something that is loosely designated as communication. (Diseases are communicated. In the kind of writing that Strunk and White appear to be thinking of, a claim is predicated about a subject, and then is defended and supported.) There are other kinds of writing. Some writing, for example, is performative; and then clarity is beside the question. “Clarity, clarity, clarity,” Struck and White demand, throwing up their hands. Whatever, whatever, whatever.

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.


Dave Lull said...

In The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing, by Ben Yagoda (HarperResource, 2004), page xxi, Harold Bloom is quoted as saying:

"It [i.e. The Elements of Style] outlaws everything that I care for in writing, in literature, in the act of writing. It tries to pretend it's against the overly baroque, but what it's against is what I would say is imagination itself."

"It is a shirtsleeve doctrine of writing. It's based upon a kind of false social contract, a mock civility, combined with that wretched thing, a mock humility. Why the appeal? I'm afraid it's a social dialectic. If you can get yourself to write like that and admire writing like that, then you must be a gentleman or gentlewoman, rather than a parvenu. I had a creepy feeling as I browsed in it. Those qualities which the latter half is rejecting, and which are my essence as a human being, a writer and a teacher-- those are exactly the qualities Yale would not tolerate in me. That tells me what this is. The genteel tradition-- or the Gentile tradition-- is what Strunk and White comes down to."

Anonymous said...

Whenever I read about Elements of Style, I'm reminded of Language Log's posts, which include vastly more invective than necessary but are nonetheless entertaining, perhaps for the reason of invective.

D. G. Myers said...

Thanks for the links to the Language Log, Jake.

Geoffrey K. Pullum’s five-year-old post on “Fossilized Prejudices about ‘However’ ” was personally fascinating to me, because (as a quick check of this blog’s archives confirmed) I never, never, never use the adverb However to start a sentence.

Pullum traces Strunk’s dogmatic injunction against starting a sentence with the adverb to turn-of-the-century literature, in which it almost invariably fell into the “second position.”

Who knows where I learned the usage? In a response, Mark Liberman finds that, in his later works, Henry James uses the similar connective adverb nevertheless almost never in the “clause-initial position.”

About the time that I was getting serious about my prose, I was also reading heavy doses of late James. But it is just as likely that, in idiosyncratically refused to start a second with a connective adverb, I may only be identifying myself as Strunk’s disciple, dutifully repeating his dogma without even thinking about it.

Neither usage—in first or second position—is better or any more correct than the other. The problem starts when one or the other is declared better or correct, on no other basis than a preference for a certain way of writing. Pullum’s conclusion is worth quoting for its pungency as well as its validity:

“This isn’t about English grammar or about good writing style. It’s about orneriness and crotchetiness and the petty conservativism of people who regard themselves as guardians of some sort of literary establishment but haven’t really got a very good eye for syntactic generalizations.”

Anonymous said...

Can someone recommend alternatives to The Elements of Style?

D. G. Myers said...

Absolutely. Robert Graves and Alan Hodge’s Reader Over Your Shoulder (1943) is the book I depend on. The authors include specimen texts, which illustrate the stylistic blemishes they are criticizing. Much less dogmatic than Strunk and White as a consequence.