The War on Strunk and White
Joseph Bottum, anti-anti-Strunk & White
Mar 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 27 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Be clear, they said, and, by God, clarity is what they got. Sentences that zinged by like bullets—bang, a shot rings out, and bang, the man at the bar with a whiskey sour slumps over dead, and bang, the lights go out, leaving nothing much to notice, except the screaming.
They hated conjunctions and sentence adverbs, did Strunk and White, our lucid boys, our apostles of a briefer gospel. “Omit needless words,” demanded The Elements of Style. You remember the book, of course. A 1919 writing manual from an English professor named William Strunk Jr., mostly forgotten until his famous student E.B. White revised the text in 1959, added his name to the front cover, and sold over 10 million of the things—mostly to people needing going-away-to-college presents for their nieces and nephews. Who eventually grew up, got jobs, worked for 20 years, and discovered they remembered little from school except that they ought to buy the book for their own college-bound nieces and nephews.
As it happens, I love all those complicated conjunctive phrases that Strunk and White despised: in the event, however, whereupon, and yet. I love the way they feel at the beginning of a sentence—the way they grease the slide from one phrase to another, with an unctuous nod toward the structures of logic as they slip by. For that matter, passive constructions are used with glee by most of the writers I admire. Which would be a telling point against Strunk and White’s commandment “Use the active voice,” except that the pair don’t actually seem to know what active and passive voices are.
Neither, as far as that goes, does George Orwell, whose 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” invariably gets itself mentioned somewhere in discussions of writing. Strunk and White were after a lean and sharpened prose; a sort of literary purpose is what they had in view. But with his own attack on the passive, Orwell was hounding a different fox: the way language can be used to erase the agent who caused the events a sentence is ostensibly describing. Mistakes were made being a classic example.
For such obscuring purposes, the passive voice is only one of many devices, and not a particularly good one at that: What, exactly, is unclear about The crash was caused by the pilot’s error? Cloudy agency and the passive voice are like circles in a Venn Diagram with only a small arc of intersection, but writing manuals have taught several generations of students to equate passives with obscurity—and, surprisingly often, to believe that a passive is any sentence with the verb to be in it.
“Avoid the use of qualifiers,” “Put statements in positive form”—all such Orwellish, Strunk-and-Whiteian rules can seem a little silly. A little small-hearted, and a lot susceptible to misuse. Besides, they partake of a kind of sympathetic magic: Eliminating the occasional accoutrements of bad writing won’t rid the world of bad writing—unless you expect a ban on red leatherette barstools to halt the consumption of bad whiskey sours.
All that said, something in the recent war on Strunk and White has begun to put my back up. The Elements of Style is an “obnoxiously ignorant little book,” the linguistics professor Geoffrey K. Pullum announced on January 24—a text matched only by Orwell’s “overblown and dishonest essay.” On January 21, the Financial Times dismissed Strunk and White as a product of the Cold War, “that disciplined, buttoned-down, and most self-assured stretch of the American century.” In his new book, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, Stanley Fish airily waves off Strunk and White as the faded avatars of the old middlebrow consensus: the middle-class elitists of a world gone by.
And in that context—in the midst of an assault on the old definitions of good writing—can’t we stop and admit that, all in all, these were reasonable guides? Last night I pulled down from the shelves, for the first time in years, that little blue book my uncle had given me as I was packing for college. Brittle pages, foxed edges, and a clean confident belief that writing, after all, is meant to express something.
“Prefer the standard to the offbeat,” Strunk and White insisted at the end of The Elements of Style. I could never quite obey that kind of dictum myself; prose has always seemed to me a vast and inarticulate ocean, tossing wave after wave of words against the shore in the hope of washing down to sea a flotsam bit of meaning. But, hell, the fact that we can’t live up to an ideal doesn’t mean it isn’t an ideal. A praiseworthy goal. A truth that keeps us honest with ourselves.