Extreme Strunk and White

Over on Language Log we’ve been dissing Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style — it’s very much in the news, 50th anniversary and all that — and shrinking back flabbergasted at the veneration that so many people have for it; the word bible is often used in reference to it. (If you haven’t been following this topic and want to check it out, go to Language Log and search on “Strunk”. There’s lots of stuff, including piles and piles of comments.)

I’m here to report on another extreme positive response to S&W, supplied by Max Vasilatos reminiscing on her high school days in Falmouth, Maine, some mumbly-mumble years ago.

Max says that the school was strongly upper middle class (not her words, which were less measured), and S&W fed into the ethos big time. Max in e-mail:

We were assigned a chapter per week or something like that, and there was a quiz on Fridays, which I remember because once I forgot to do the memorization/reading and blew it (not the hopefully one, possibly “however”, which I have henceforth forever gotten wrong).

Yes, memorization. Ok, kids, let’s recite this week’s verse from S&W:

However. Avoid starting a sentence with however when the meaning is “nevertheless.” The word usually serves better when not in first position.

This from the 2000 edition, several editions past the one Max had to commit to memory in high school. The Strunk 1918 version was even sterner:

In the meaning nevertheless, not to come first in its sentence or clause.

(And the Strunk 1918 original didn’t have an entry on hopefully, though White’s addition about it was scathing.)

Max still recalls that there were supposed to be three correct ways to use however (and so say Strunk 1918 and the various editions of S&W: inside the sentence, in the meaning ‘in whatever way’, and in the meaning ‘to whatever extent’). Whatever the question on the exam was, Max guessed, creatively, and got it wrong.

I’m not objecting to memorization. It has its uses, even now, when so many texts are easily recoverable on-line. There is value to having some of them internalized, not merely recoverable. But internalizing the S&W “bible”?

The most frequent praise of S&W that I’ve heard is that it’s short (which is what makes memorizing it imaginable; you couldn’t really imagine memorizing Fowler, in any of its editions, or any of Garner’s advice books, or the estimable MWDEU). But this brevity is also the source of S&W’s great weaknesses: the book is a checklist of vague generalities (like the famous “omit needless words”) and a handful of very specific and eccentric proscriptions (like the advice on however).

3 Responses to “Extreme Strunk and White”

  1. SDT Says:

    I’ve been following the discussion of S&W on Language Log, but I don’t think I’ve noticed before the idea that veneration of S&W has a specific social basis. Your suggestion that it feeds an upper middle class ethos (if I understand you correctly) is new.

    On LL, the critique seems to be that S&W is wrong and its veneration is irrational. That demands an explanation, but I haven’t noticed that any one has been offered on LL other than flaws in education. In fact, a frequent theme on LL is that general education should include more linguistics education and then journalists would not be so ignorant.

    Of course, the idea that irrational prescriptivists are insecure about their status is implicit in some of the discussions and is probably true.

  2. trawnapanda Says:

    is there something *wrong* with committing texts to memory? Heavenly days, I’ve probably got most of Miss Manners’ *Guide to Excrutiatingly Correct Behaviour” memorised, and it’s a LOT longer than Strunk&White.

    [ask me about elegantly dressed Bostonians staggering across the room and diving face-first into a bowl of guacamole dip, while simultaneously disengaging their bodice from their bosom]

  3. arnoldzwicky Says:

    Addendum: see the brief discussions of S&W here on the NYT’s Room for Debate site.

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