David's Reviews > The Elements of Style

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.
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Apr 10, 2008

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Read in April, 2008

This book is a bit of a mess, ironically, but is worth reading. My natural style is... somewhat baroque. I wanted to pick up some tips on writing more clearly, since my goal is more often communication than art. The first few sections of the book are great, and the examples are quite helpful (in addition to being amusing). Nonetheless, there are many problems with this book.

Section IV, on the use of words and phrases, is comically idiosyncratic. One of my pet peeves is the instance that words in English must retain the meaning of the root word (often from another language). This is thoroughly insane.

The distinction between "shall" and "will" is actually one where I have much sympathy for the authors' argument. It was a useful distinction. It is not very common anymore, however, and sounds pretentious in use (in America, anyway).

Other arguments I scorn entirely. They argue that it is perfectly sensible to use a male pronoun (he) to stand for both male and female pronouns (he and she). Historically, usage does support that, although it does seem problematic. In the same breath, however, they argue that it is completely unacceptable to use a plural pronoun (they) to stand for a singular (e.g. he). And this makes sense how? The latter also has a long historical precedent. It completely undermines any claims that Strunk and White are being logical, listening to usage, or obeying precedent.

One gets the distinct sense that White is more forgiving than Strunk. White condones the sentence "the worst tennis player around here is me" in no uncertain terms (113), due to its sound rather than its grammar. Five pages after (presumably) Strunk denounces indiscriminate use of the suffix "-wise" (93), White happily uses the word "soulwise" (98). Needless to say, I could not find this word in a dictionary. This tension between Strunk and White lends a slightly schizophrenic tone to the work, although it is not strong.

Perhaps the greatest problem I had with the book was that frequently the "corrections" of sentences to good grammar or style changed the meaning of the sentences. This is completely unacceptable. For example, they change "more importantly, he paid for the damages" to "what's more, he paid for the damages". Um? The latter says nothing about the relative importance of the act, while the former clearly emphasizes it.

This is a book that should be read, but not by those who don't already possess a strong sense of the language (with the possible exception of the first three sections).

So anyway, the truth is, it was like a totally not undecent book and stuff and you should totally interface with it in terms of reading, but it might aggravate you with it's grammar maven-oriented sort of stuff, and secondly the resistance to change language-wise that transpires in the book.



So... after reading a bunch of short essays by my (college) students, I've changed my mind a bit. The first three chapters of Strunk & White should be required reading for everyone. I don't get the feeling that most people will ever develop a strong sense of the language on their own.

This book also really did make me start thinking more about clarity in my own writing. However, the flaws I mention above make me reluctant to raise my rating.
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