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Good and Bad News of The Elements of Style

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White is probably the most influential grammar guide in the English-speaking world. That is both good news and bad news.

Good news: The book contains some good advice to novice writers (“Choose a suitable design and hold to it,” 15), and it’s a fine place to turn for explications of English grammar conventions (“The number of the subject determines the number of the verb,” 9). Plus, it advocates a righteous no-tolerance policy toward nonsense in writing. Read Strunk & White once, and you’ll never write “I thank you in advance” again.

Bad news: The Strunkian attitude is so smug that more than a few readers have found it offensive. Feminist critic Jodi Lundgren complains that The Elements of Style has a “punitive tone” and a “quasi-military obsession with surface neatness” (125). Even E.B. White describes the book’s contents as “Sergeant Strunk snapping orders to his platoon” (Strunk xiv). The book has also been accused — and not without reason — of perpetuating sexist and elitist norms.

Like it or not (and frankly, I don’t), The Elements of Style is so ubiquitous in American schools that its influence is impossible to ignore. As writing tutors, we have at least two good reasons to become familiar with the little book: so we can pass on its best advice to our tutees, and so we can mitigate its more pernicious effects on American writing culture.

Here are three principles that should govern the relationship between the writing center and The Elements of Style.

1. Read the book and talk about it.

Practically all American writers, even those who never read The Elements of Style, have felt the effects of the book’s popularity. Writing tutors need to know what’s in the book, or we will fail to understand much of what our tutees experience as student writers in the United States. We might wonder: Why do so many professors compare The Elements to the Bible? Why do some forward-thinking students continue to write “he” for an indefinite human antecedent, when the progressive convention is “she” or “she or he?” (Strunk 61) Who is Sergeant Strunk, and why do some American adults have nightmares about him?

Like any critical reader of Strunk & White, I’ve found sections to love (“Omit needless words,” 23), sections to hate (“They. He or She,” 60) and sections to laugh at (“One of the most,” 55). Those are my opinions. Other Writing Fellows must surely have their own. We should talk.

2. Keep a copy in the writing center and use it on occasion.

As of December 2011, the bookshelf of the Pomona College Writing Center did not hold a copy of The Elements of Style. If that has changed, that is good. The little book has a good deal of practical value.

The Elements of Style does an admirable job explaining the basic conventions of written English. When a writing tutor works with a student who consistently fails to respect one or more of these conventions, the tutor may find it useful to show the student a passage from Strunk & White.

Just as often, tutors may want to try using The Elements of Style as a scapegoat for the academic discourse conventions that some tutees find stifling. The tutor can say: “Here in Claremont, we have a community of scholars who follow the rules established by mainstream grammar guides, especially The Elements of Style.There’s no philosophical reason why punctuation needs to be done this way, but we all agree to follow Strunk & White’s advice so that everyone can understand everyone else.”

3. Keep your distance.

At no point should a Writing Fellow attempt to act out the role of Sergeant Strunk. The authors of The Elements of Style would have made terrible writing tutors.

Strunk and White are hell-bent on producing better writing, while modern writing centers strive to produce better writers. A Strunkian writing consultation would feel like an hour of grammatical boot camp, and few students would ever sign up for a second appointment. It’s better to engage students in conversation about their writing, rather than torture them with constant scrutiny of sentence-level problems.

For the same reasons that Strunk and White make a bad role models for writing tutors, it would be ill-advised for a tutor to mention The Elements of Style more than a few times during a single consultation. If the tutee perceives too strong an affinity between the tutor and the style guide, the tutor’s comments might be tainted with the residue of Strunkian snark.

Works Cited

Lundgren, Jodi. “Interrogating the Popularity of Strunk and White.” Journal of Teaching Writing 18, nos. 1-2 (2000): 123-32

Strunk, William, and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009. Print.