Monday, July 4, 2016

Frankenstrunk: Birth of a monster

A post today by Geoff Pullum at Language Log mentioned this Boston Globe column on Strunk & White's Elements of Style. Since the original is behind a paywall (and badly formatted to boot), I've republished it here in a more palatable and accessible form.)

JUST IN TIME for Halloween, it's back: Yet another edition of The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White's persistently popular guidebook for writers. And this time it's in costume, decked out with dozens of gay, whimsical illustrations by Maira Kalman (interviewed in this week's Examined Life column). But The Elements's new clothes can't hide the worsening limp and spackled complexion that plague this aging zombie of a book. 

It was never a seamless creation, to be sure; the 1959 first edition merely sandwiched Strunk's 1918 handbook for his Cornell students, lightly edited, between White's introduction and his essay on prose style. But at least you knew Strunk was Strunk, vintage 1918, and White was White, circa 1958. Succeeding revisions, instead of blending the disparate parts, have left Elements a hodgepodge, its now-antiquated pet peeves jostling for space with 1970s taboos and 1990s computer advice. 

(The illustrated Elements is essentially the 1999 edition, with a couple of small restorations from the 1918 original. Not quite a restoration, alas, in the case of Strunk's introduction: The proofreaders overlooked one of his "Words Often Misspelled," so the opening sentence now promises "to give in brief space the principle requirements of plain English style.") 

Scanning the recent editions, you sometimes wonder what could possibly have been cut, given the absurdity of what remains. Don't use claim to mean "assert"? Mark Twain did it in 1869, the year Strunk was born. Don't contact anyone? It's a "vague and self-important" verb -- or so people said in the 1920s, when it was new. Don't use they to refer to "a distributive subject" like everybody -- unless you're E.B. White: "But somebody taught you, didn't they?" says a character in Charlotte's Web

Even Strunk's signature battle cry -- "Omit needless words!" -- is question-begging bluster: Which are the needless words? Needless for whom? That's the hard decision, and S&W's editing examples do not inspire confidence. Surely "He often came late" is not always better than "He was not very often on time." And as any courtroom witness could testify, "I did not remember" doesn't equal "I forgot." 

We're told we must write "It looked more like a cormorant than like a heron" --because, I surmise, without the second like the sentence might mean "It looked more like a cormorant than a heron looks like a cormorant." Should that remote possibility loom in a stretch of actual prose, of course we can repeat the like, but how often does it happen? A Google search suggests that writers add the second like only about once in 100 such comparisons -- and not all of those likes are necessary. 

Could this messy monster have evolved into a different beast? Probably not; White was in a trap the moment he started revising the 1959 Elements. That book could stand as a quirky appreciation of White's old teacher, its dated items just amusing historical artifacts. 

White surely knew that some of Strunk's crotchets --his insistence on I shall, say, or his rule that however, meaning "nevertheless," could not begin a sentence -- were becoming untenable; but they were Strunk being Strunk. 

But if White, in his revisions, admitted that aggravate could mean irritate (as it did in 1611), or that I could care less was not a mystifying mistake, his usage notes would lose their essential Strunkiness, that bluff certainty that had hooked him in the first place. 

So rather than join the reality-based usage community, White stuck with Strunkian dogmatism. Hence a book that tells us, in 2005, that offputting and ongoing are illegitimate; that hopefully is beyond the pale; and that six people is a solecism because there's no such thing as one people. 

Why does this sort of thing send reviewers into raptures? Maybe they remember, from their college days, a reassuringly slim volume that pretended it could solve their writing problems. The "Strunkian attitude toward right-and-wrong," in White's eccentrically hyphenated phrase, may still stir in readers the eternal hope that someone, somewhere, knows what he's doing. 

If that certainty is what you liked about your old Strunk and White, you'll find it, only slightly eroded, in the newly dolled-up Elements. But the artwork is merely a colorful shroud on a corpse that's overdue for burial. May it rest in peace, someday soon.

(Jan Freeman, Boston Sunday Globe, Oct. 23, 2005)


John Cowan said...
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John Cowan said...

Check out Strunk & Cowan, a separate branch off Strunk 1918.

(Corrected link)