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Strunk and White are Dead

on October 13, 2011 by Mike in Essays facebook in twitter

I admit it. I used to teach grammar. But it wasn’t my fault. I was merely a product of my upbringing. I had been taught that grammar rules. As a student in what was then called junior high, I had excelled at diagramming sentences. I never dangled participles. Moreover, I created conventional transitions with such gracious terms as “However” and “Nonetheless.” I could spot a gerund with my eyes closed. When I advanced to high school, I never sought to foolishly split infinitives. I never used a preposition to end a sentence with. I never used the first person. I didn’t use contractions. And I never started a sentence with a conjunction. I fervently sought to compose fully developed paragraphs, each containing a clearly identifiable thesis statement and at least three supporting points.

Sentence fragments? Never. Structure was everything. Those imposters, style and voice, were the enemy. Intellectual, academic, “proper” writing required nothing less than full submission to pedantic tradition and the gods of grammar.

And so it was that, as a young student, I dutifully read Strunk and White’s venerated tome, The Elements of Style. But I never liked it. Originally written and self-published in 1919 by Cornell University English professor William Strunk Jr., the 43-page opus was edited and revised into an 85-page work by Strunk’s former student, E.B. White, in 1959. By then White was a revered author, essayist, and editor. In his updated 1971 introduction, White calls Strunk’s original work “an attempt to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin.” White admired that effort, but he did not find it infallible. He explained that his revised edition deleted “errors and bewhiskered entries.” White wrote that his revised edition was “a thorough overhaul” of Strunk’s original.

Then TV newsman and poet Charles Osgood teamed with author Roger Angell to produce the 4th edition of The Elements of Style, published in 2000. As White had done before them, Osgood and Angell tried to maintain Professor Strunk’s original intent while nudging the little book (105 pages now compared to the original 43) into the present. Yet The Elements of Style, 4th edition, still doesn’t speak to me. But Sean Connery does when his character in the film Finding Forrester advises, “Write with your heart. Revise with your head.”

Since everyone can write at some level, many people believe they are effective writers. Many are mistaken. Many believe they know good writing when they see it, and some even believe they know how to teach effective writing. Alas, too many have been misled by placing too much faith in the false gods of grammar. Even we here at ProofreadingPal often question the “rules” despite knowing we’re paid to not only know them, but to help our clients follow them.

As Weird Al Yankovic, the master of musical parody has lyrically explained, “Everything you know is wrong.” O.K., maybe not everything, just most of what you think you know about effective writing.

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