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(Still) Groping for Words: Usage and Slang Guides, Revisited: Strunk and White and Beyond

by Edwin L. Battistella

Strunk and White and Beyond

William Strunk took usage advice in the opposite direction from Fowler, seeking to be economical rather than exhaustive and to present the points of usage and composition that were important to college writers. To that end, Strunk (then an English professor at Cornell) put together some guidelines in 1918 and published them privately, as The Elements of Style, for the benefit of his students. How Strunk’s The Elements of Style became “Strunk and White,” a book familiar to so many, is a tale that is almost too good to be true. One of Strunk’s students at Cornell was E. B. White. In 1957, now an accomplished author, White wrote an appreciation of his former teacher (who had died a decade earlier) for The New Yorker, commenting on Strunk’s writing manual. As a result of that piece, Macmillan invited White to update the original book. White’s updating of The Elements of Style (released as singly authored by Strunk, with White credited for “revisions, an introduction, and a chapter on writing”) appeared in 1959 and immediately earned a place on the New York Times bestseller list. White contributed advice on style “in the sense of what is distinguished and distinguishing,” but his real success was in keeping the book manageable and brief (it was 71 pages long). Now 105 pages (in its fourth edition, with a new glossary, new material on principles of style, and a foreword by White’s son-in-law Roger Angell), The Elements of Style is still the scouting manual of writing, offering such advice as “use figures of speech sparingly,” “avoid foreign languages,” and “prefer the standard to the offbeat.” The most recent iteration of this classic is an illustrated edition, also titled The Elements of Style (this time coauthored by Strunk and White), which features the work of artist Maira Kalman. For a history of what has long been called “Strunk and White,” there is Mark Garvey’s charming Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (the subtitle says it all).

Strunk and White inspired other terse treatments of style, among them Christopher Lasch’s Plain Style: A Guide to Written English, edited by Stewart Weaver, which opens with the story of professor Lasch putting aside his notes on progressivism and substituting a grammar quiz based on Strunk and White. Short and sour, but with an interesting essay by Weaver on the politics of style, this book is, in effect, The Elements of Style for graduate students. ReneĢ Cappon’s The Associated Press Guide to News Writing (now in its fourth edition) performs a similar function for professional journalists, with such advice as “Put verbs to work” and “Hold the adjectives.”

Other works treat style in more depth. Joseph Williams’s Style: Toward Clarity and Grace analyzes emphasis, elegance, length, clarity, brevity, and coherence (Gregory Colomb joins Williams in discussing the last of these topics). Inverting Strunk and White’s organization, Williams treats style as the main subject and defers usage to the final chapter, there distinguishing real grammatical rules from folklore and personal bêtes noires. Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century addresses style by way of reverse engineering examples of clear exposition and murky writing that gives in to overspecialization; he also offers a wonderfully contrarian style guide organized into categories of grammar; quantity, quality, and degree; diction; and punctuation.

And finally, Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk and Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language and Style comes at Strunk and White head on. A former editor of American Libraries, Plotnik takes issue with Strunk and White’s conventionality. Offering advice for those who want their work to stand out from the crowd’s, Plotnik talks back to the voice of authority and gives the writer permission to use adverbs, adjectives, verbs-as-nouns, and even hyper-hyphenation.

To summarize the foregoing: the itinerary for those wishing to cover the style territory would start at Strunk and White, move on to Williams and Pinker for more depth, go back and give Gowers, Graves and Hodges, and Flesch a look (for historical context), and end at Plotnick.