Elements of Style (Illustrated)

The Elements of Style (Illustrated) by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, with illustrations by Maira Kalman (New York: Penguin, 2005), 142 pp.

During my senior year in high school, our honors English class had one textbook: The Elements of Style, which at the time was only 12 years old (though Strunk’s original book dated to 1918). Since then I have reread it a few times, always found it useful, and not hesitated to recommend it.

In recent years, though, the book has been criticized as stuffy, pedantic, and excessively prescriptive. As an editor, I give first aid to writing, and even though I’m not a doctor, I occasionally write prescriptions for writing that needs it. I’m not against a prescriptive approach to writing and editing. There are, as the authors phrase it, some “experts in the art of bad writing,” and for them prescriptions are in order.

A few years ago, a friend gave me a copy of The Elements of Style (Illustrated), based on the 4th edition, which was published in 2000, and in December 2017 I decided to read the whole book through again with a critical eye.

The Elements of Style holds up well if you are willing to take advice from professionals such as Strunk and White. In chapter V, “An Approach to Style,” they present “gentle reminders,” not rules. The authors are against writing that is “stiff, needlessly formal.”

However, much of the book is devoted to rules, and some of them, such as when to use shall and will, indeed are stuffy, pedantic, and excessively prescriptive. Sometimes the authors appeal to Latin as a standard (I was taking Latin in my senior year of high school too), but Latin is not a good guide to English usage.

Also, some of the new material became outdated faster than the original text: “By the time this paragraph sees print, psyched, nerd, ripoff, dude, geek, and funky will be the words of yesteryear,” they wrote; that prediction was totally wrong, as 17 years later all of those words are still in use.

Finally, “Maira Kalman’s whimsical paintings,” as the Los Angeles Times called them (according to the book’s back cover), are an embellishment, nice to have, but add nothing to the substance of the book.

My conclusion, after more than 45 years of using The Elements of Style: Adhering to this book will not harm anybody’s writing and will in fact do a lot of good. If you’re an experienced writer or editor who can sensibly reject some of the advice, go ahead. But it’s still worthwhile to lend an ear now and then to a couple of professionals who were confident enough to provide a little book of rules and gentle reminders to assist us.

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