Strunk 100 years on

Over 100 years ago, as the story goes, Professor William Struck Jr. of Cornell University penned the very first Elements of a Style guide for his English students in an attempt to rid their essays of horrendous blunders and misdemeanours. So successful was this little booklet that two years later, in 1920, it was published by Harcourts.

Then began the years of revision. Together with editor Edward A. Tenney, it was revised as The Elements and Practice of Composition in 1935. Later, the revised title changed back when Strunk’s former student E. B. White (author of children’s classics Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web) got involved in 1957. Remembering the little 52-page book from his college days, White was contracted by Macmillian and Company to complete a revised edition in the absence of the since-departed William Strunk. From then on, the book has held the title ‘Strunk & White’, although the two never collaborated on its contents together.

The Elements of Style is now officially in its fourth edition, although it is routinely edited and updated, with sports essayist Roger Angell prefacing the latest copy. It has also been turned into an illustrated guide, performed as a cantata and has a book dedicated to its history; Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style by Mark Garvey. An audio version has also been made available, with amendments to include gender-friendly language terms.

But do these continuous updates not hit at the core of the problem? Doth language not protest under the strain of well-worn years? How has such a guide continued to excite so much attention through to the modern era, despite its humble beginnings in an Ivy League university and the mind of a stringent English professor?

The most straightforward answer is that William Strunk was right. Good writing is direct; it omits what it doesn’t need. This isn’t to suggest that language cannot be fun, romantic or overly image-heavy, but rather that good, clear communication will entice better, ensuring one’s point is made and made well.

“Omit more words, omit more words, omit more words.”

As White recalls, Strunk was a man of such fantastic brevity that his lectures would routinely finish in half the allotted time. To prevent this, he employed a simple trick. He repeated all his instructions three times, slowly. Especially the one about omitting more words.

How does this technique work?

Say I were writing to describe to you the ancient mariner of Coleridge’s legendary poem; what adjectives could I use? What recourse of language is most appropriate? The answer, according to Strunk, is anything that communicates the intention and gives the necessary image without distracting from the subject — i.e. the ancient mariner. Of course, there are numerous occasions in literature where distraction is the point — James Joyce’s Ulysses for one — but these unique exceptions are best handled by adepts who have mastered their craft.

Further criticisms

Strunk’s original four chapters and the addition of the fifth chapter on style by White also form sharply pointed criticisms on oft-overlooked grammatical issues, which detract from one’s argument. Such classics as ‘ending the possessive singular by adding ’s’ or ‘placing a comma before a conjunction introducing a common clause’ are dealt with briefly, each with a prominent example of incorrect and correct usage as well as an explanation. These steadfast rules are necessary for clarity’s sake, defining who belongs to what in a sentence or which point a clause is reacting to (ending on a preposition is also a misdemeanour, so I’ll insert my brackets here to prevent a Strunkian boo-boo).

These rules do admit to being malleable, particularly with the passing of time and the introduction of different phraseologies. Strunk even suggested adding the word ‘studentary’ to avoid the awkward term ‘student body’, which is generally used to describe only ‘students’. Common linguistic usage is stated, in many cases, as enough to change a word’s usage. Often, this only admits amending or adding words instead of shifting the underlying bedrock of grammar — as in the case of ‘wise’, a perfectly serviceable addition to any noun where the meaning is to be changed to say something is ‘in the service of’ another thing.

Are rules meant to be broken?

The rule against the use of collective they as singular is perhaps the most politically charged of the old rules still standing. The use of ‘he’ as a stand-in for any single person where the sex is undetermined has become an issue within the larger community. Science fiction has been uniquely equipped to handle numerous stand-in terms without prior gendered or linguistic association. Arguably this is preferable to shoehorning a preexisting collective word to perform as a singular term, but in reality, it hasn’t caught on quite so well.

Despite these hurdles, the book continues to inspire. Its concise and pointed directions are quickly followed and, when applied, dramatically improve any composition. I am writing this article on an Apple computer with the aid of Grammarly*, an online tool designed with conciseness in mind. It’s one I’m sure Strunk would have approved of, given that his students understood the changes being suggested.

Concise, pointed language for the time-poor blue-collar worker who has to juggle family, Netflix and social media is also of vast importance. Unless you’re willing to dive into an article (like this one), the language you employ must be simple, gettable and adhere to the correct rules we all learn and instinctively apply, often without the ability to verbally explain them away. All of which is why Strunk & White continues to resonate so well — I can’t help but feel this concise book would, with minimal effort, fit nicely within a Reddit stream or string of Tweets.

We’re also in an age where machines read more of our content than we do, so delivering on exact, targeted language is essential for reaching an audience reading content filtered by SEO streams. You have five seconds to captivate your audience — so make it work.

That said, different mediums call for a different approach. A novel is a different beast from a newspaper headline. Both, however, can benefit from well-considered language that avoids confusion and delivers on its intent.

But now I’ve gone on too long and spoilt my point. I’ll omit the rest of my words (for now).

*For more on this topic, see my article ‘Grammarly: The Robin to your Batman.’

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J.R.McCulloch

A literary student by nature (and training), with a splash of ad experience, I’m setting out to make passion my career — reading, writing and SF.