Forget Everything Strunk & White Told You

by Erin Brenner on September 22, 2011

Recently on Twitter, fellow copyeditor CopyCurmudgeon offered this advice to writers and editors:

Tip: Put down Strunk and White and slowly back away. Then forget everything they told you.

CopyCurmdgeon then links to an article by Geoffrey Pullum, a well-known and well-respected linguist, on what’s wrong with Strunk and White’s famous little book. Writes Pullum, “Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students’ grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.” He then details what he dislikes about the book. What he likes about the book he labels, quoting Douglas Adams, “mostly harmless.”

The real problem is that many people (including some writers and editors) suffer under the illusion that if you can speak you can write. Not so. Language is complicated, and we’re nowhere near to understanding it completely. Writing is hard work. Trying to wrestle an entire discipline that concerns something we don’t understand perfectly and that constantly changes into short, pithy rules is bound to fail. Sure, you can create some rules, but they’ll never be comprehensive or complex enough. Even in this blog, where I can write as much as I want, I can’t write enough to cover something completely. Pullum’s grammar book is almost 2,000 pages!

I’ve read of teachers defending Strunk & White because it’s easy for students to follow. But if the content is misleading or downright wrong, what are they following? It’s like telling students not to start a sentence with because. There’s more to the story than that. Starting a sentence with because can sometimes create incomplete sentences. But it’s actually OK to start a sentence with because if (1) it’s part of a complete sentence or (2) you are intentionally writing an incomplete sentence and you don’t overdo the incomplete sentences.

But instead of teaching a more comprehensive point, many simply teach “don’t start a sentence with because.” Maybe that works for middle-school students, but even by high school, students should be learning more than that. And in a book for college-aged and adult writers, writing such a simplistic rule is irresponsible.

This has long been a complaint of mine: many grammar and writing books written for adults simplify the rules too much. People follow the rules slavishly, but they miss the nuances. As a result, they write poorly but think they write well.

Writing is not easy. It’s a skill and an art. You need some aptitude and lots of training, as well as editors and readers to help you see the writing separate from the meaning. This will help correct the writing to make the meaning clearer.

Given that I’d steer writers and editors away from Strunk & White, what would I recommend? Here are a few books that are readable and knowledgeable but that don’t skimp on the meaning:

What’s your favorite writing or grammar advice book? Share it in the comments section below.

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