Strunk & White? STILL?

Earlier today I attended a lecture on persuasive writing, specifically on writing op-eds and letters to the editors for major papers. I felt it was pretty thin, but then, it wasn’t oriented at me, a guy who has been writing since he was four. But it did bring up some good points, namely to be quick, to the point, punchy, and no dithering of any sort.

I also liked the limits he gave–hard numbers are always good for a presentation. 150 words for a letter, 750 for an op-ed. And those aren’t targets, they’re ceilings. If you can do less, write less. Better chance of getting it in. That at least gives me a ballpark.

There was only one problem, really, that I had with it. It wasn’t even focused on, and it was a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment. But it was still: on the very last slide, on the list of “books you should read,” was an entry for Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.


Why the hell does anyone still recommend that book? Surely there are better books out there on writing (or just different ones.) I took a couple of correspondence courses back when I was in high school from a “career school” in Pennsylvania, so I got a couple of copies of Elements and read it, and I could tell you straight off the bat that it was utter trash.

First off, most of the book is simple common sense. “Be clear.” Naw, really? “Omit needless words.” ZOMG, manna from heaven! Come on. Even American high school graduates would know this stuff, and they’re some of the worst offenders of writing out there. (I know. I am one.)

But the rest of it is just garbage. The writers didn’t even know what they were talking about half the time. I could elucidate, but rather, I’ll leave it up to a professor from Edinburgh who explained it so well two years ago:

For me to report that I paid my bill by saying “The bill was paid by me,” with no stress on “me,” would sound inane. (I’m the utterer, and the utterer always counts as familiar and well established in the discourse.) But that is no argument against passives generally. “The bill was paid by an anonymous benefactor” sounds perfectly natural. Strunk and White are denigrating the passive by presenting an invented example of it deliberately designed to sound inept.


What concerns me is that the bias against the passive is being retailed by a pair of authors so grammatically clueless that they don’t know what is a passive construction and what isn’t. Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses. “At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard” is correctly identified as a passive clause, but the other three are all errors:

  • “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” has no sign of the passive in it anywhere.
  • “It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had” also contains nothing that is even reminiscent of the passive construction.
  • “The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired” is presumably fingered as passive because of “impaired,” but that’s a mistake. It’s an adjective here. “Become” doesn’t allow a following passive clause. (Notice, for example, that “A new edition became issued by the publishers” is not grammatical.)

These examples can be found all over the Web in study guides for freshman composition classes. (Try a Google search on “great number of dead leaves lying.”) I have been told several times, by both students and linguistics-faculty members, about writing instructors who think every occurrence of “be” is to be condemned for being “passive.” No wonder, if Elements is their grammar bible. It is typical for college graduates today to be unable to distinguish active from passive clauses. They often equate the grammatical notion of being passive with the semantic one of not specifying the agent of an action. (They think “a bus exploded” is passive because it doesn’t say whether terrorists did it.)

The treatment of the passive is not an isolated slip. It is typical of Elements. The book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules. They can’t help it, because they don’t know how to identify what they condemn.

“Put statements in positive form,” they stipulate, in a section that seeks to prevent “not” from being used as “a means of evasion.”

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,” they insist. (The motivation of this mysterious decree remains unclear to me.)

And then, in the very next sentence, comes a negative passive clause containing three adjectives: “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.”

That’s actually not just three strikes, it’s four, because in addition to contravening “positive form” and “active voice” and “nouns and verbs,” it has a relative clause (“that can pull”) removed from what it belongs with (the adjective), which violates another edict: “Keep related words together.”

I lose a dash of respect for people who tell you to read Elements in order to be a better writer. It’s like they never thought about it; they’re just repeating what everyone said before without analyzing it. Note that the person in question, who I’m leaving nameless, is someone I respect overall, and this is a rather tiny slight, but still. I’m disappointed.

Suffice to say, I put the Elements of Style in the same category as Shakespeare’s work: overhyped bilge that should have been junked years ago.