25 April 2009

Happy Birthday Strunk & White: You suck!

For the 50th anniversary of The Elements of Style, the little writing guide by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, the New York Times "Room for debate" feature invites linguists and grammar geeks to discuss the book's impact. The only "debate" however, seems to be over whether S&W is merely outdated and worthless, or actively harmful. Here's Geoffrey Pullman, professor of linguistics at the University of Edinburgh:
Again and again, Strunk and White recommend the stuffy and unidiomatic, and warn against what sounds effective and natural. Even their beliefs about English as it used to be are wrong; but foisting their prejudices on today’s students is much more so.
And here's professor of English Ben Yagoda, from the University of Delaware:
White purports to be talking about “style” but is really advocating a particular style. It is a style of absence: absence of grammatical mistakes, breeziness, opinions, jargon, clich├ęs, mixed metaphors, wordiness and, indeed, anything that could cloud the transparency of the prose and remind readers that a real person composed it.
Clearly none of the contributors have recently read through a pile of undergraduate writing assignments. S&W, and the "stuffy and unidiomatic" style they advocate, is the only antidote for the sort of dreadful writing undergraduates learn to produce over twelve years of assignments based on filling up a given amount of space. Beginning writers don't have an ear for what is "effective and natural" -- they need training wheels.


Photo by JKim1.
I've benefited from those training wheels myself. As both a writer and reader of scientific prose, I have nothing but respect for S&W's knee-jerk reaction against the passive voice, and their repeated exhortations to write clearly and simply. Sometimes the passive voice is indeed better (as S&W freely concede), but without great care it can reduce an already technical passage to an unreadable tangle. Likewise, it is sometimes necessary to use specialized vocabulary and twisty verbiage to communicate complex ideas; but more often these get in the way of communicating scientific results.

The little book never pretends to be the last word, but it is a vital starting point. As White wrote in the introduction:
It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.

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