Sunday, May 24, 2009

Appraising “Strunk and White”

Strunk & White's ("Elements of Style") fiftieth anniversary caught linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum's wrath. (See Pullum isn't entirely fair in his criticisms, often because of his distaste for the authors' stating their advice absolutely. Pointing to the literal impossibility of omitting all modifiers, Pullum derides "use active voice" and "write with verbs and nouns, not adjectives and adverbs." Pullum's point is that the literal advice is misguided; qualified advice, vacuous; and admonished advice, incoherent. His criticism reminds of the legal-realist mockeries of the interpretive canons, and the same rebuttal applies: defeasible rules aren't necessarily vacuous or contradictory. Strunk & White understood the active-voice passive-voice distinction and merely mentioned a related distinction between connective verbs and transitive active verbs. Where critics find Strunk & White ignoring its own advice, they could more charitably construe this inconsistency as having a point many critics endorse: style and even grammar rules are at best only guidelines.

Descriptivist linguists act paradoxically when they criticize a recommended rule as "wrong," but the unquestioned acceptance of some of the Strunk & White "rules" has harmed usage. Even Bryan Garner — not to speak of Wayne Schiess — continues to advocate a rule that would deplete the language's expressive power: the that/which linkage to nonrestrictive and restrictive modifiers, a rule announced by Strunk & White. What arouses the somewhat misplaced ire of the book's vehement critics is the misuse to which others have applied it. The work has been transformed from a teaching aid for inexperienced writers into a battering ram of the incompetent against those who have outgrown Strunk & White's strictures. Ascending to administrative, educational, and editorial posts, the mediocre exploit the stark absolutism of the rules understood without the qualifications in the text following. One or another rule may be purveyed as a writing panacea. The recommendation to prefer the concrete to the abstract is turned into a condemnation of abstraction, by persons afflicted with excessively concrete thought. The book's commitment to the attic style may be taken to preclude other styles, rather than as a stage in writers' development.

To objectively assess Strunk & White, we should distinguish the work from its use by epigones. Too simplistic to serve today as general style guide or text, Strunk & White in its succinctness can sometimes help experienced writers re-activate a mental set incorporating its theme of syntactic transparency.

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