The Elements of Style

Back in my senior year of high school, the honors English class had one textbook: The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White. What a wonderful, helpful book! I studied it, and I still study it. I rely on it.

Nowadays some editors frown on Strunk and White because The Elements of Style is prescriptivist: it tells writers what to do. It declares that certain writing is good and certain writing bad. It says that some constructions are right and some wrong. How dare Strunk and White tell us what to do? I imagine that Moses got a similar reception to the Ten Commandments.

What’s wrong with writing, “If a person gets ten commandments, they might not obey them”? You know, like, that’s how people talk. And you can tell what the sentence means. Even Shakespeare used they as a singular pronoun.

Well, to borrow from Shakespeare, fie on it! ’Tis an unweeded garden.* As an editor, I would, metaphorically, write a prescription: Use good grammar; use pronouns with clear antecedents. Do not disseminate as written.

Never mind how people talk. Some English speakers, including me, can be sloppy speakers. What’s more, there are a lot of English-speaking people who do not live in the United States or the British Commonwealth. A lot of them speak English well, but it is not their first language, and they probably learned what Strunk and White would call correct English. With so much published writing truly available worldwide via the Web, any piece of writing could have international readership. Let’s keep those people in mind when we edit and not use the way Americans talk as our standard of acceptable writing.

“A person who gets ten commandments might not obey them.” That’s OK. So is “People who get ten commandments might not obey them.”

As writers and editors, let’s aim to produce good writing. The six chapters of The Elements of Style are worthy commandments. My recommendation: study them and rely on them.

* I realize that this is not a precise quotation from Hamlet, which is why I didn’t use quotation marks. However, it is pretty darn close.


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