Tuesday April 21st, 2009

Strunk & White Turn 50

elements_styleLast week, the 50th anniversary of The Elements of Style was noted far and wide. So was the book’s loudest critic, Geoffrey K. Pullum, who made his feelings known in the Chronicle of Higher Education. His opinion of the book is illustrated with many examples, but the gist is found early on: “Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense.”

Levi Stahl points out that E. B. White himself had doubts about his authority on the subject. Stahl also includes a few eloquent thoughts of his own, including this one, with which I agree completely, and not only because I was a terrible grammar student:

. . . we learn to write well not by learning the rules of grammar or sussing out the parts of speech, but by reading and hearing and absorbing good writing, noting its cadences, its balance, its methods of telegraphing tone and emphasis. Of course we can’t learn to write well from Elements; we couldn’t even if its presentation of grammar were unimpeachable. A book of grammar, like a dictionary, is something we consult when we have a question. It is the mountain of other, non-instructional books we spend a lifetime reading that actually teaches us how to write.

Stahl then moves on to quote several of White’s wonderful letters.