Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Cult of Strunk & White

DaveD has been kind enough to give me several days' worth of blog topics. Tackling his questions in LIFO order:
Is Strunk and White's really the Holy Grail of writing? Nearly every pro I've read says that if you want to be published you HAVE to follow "Elements of Style".
I like The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. I keep a copy of it on the bookshelf right behind my monitor and still refer to it now and then when I have a question. It's one of those books I buy in order to give to people I meet; as a tool for teaching aspiring writers the rudiments of punctuation and grammar, it has few equals.

But, the utility of Strunk & White begins and ends with academic and technical writing. If you want to communicate your ideas clearly, concisely, and with all the vitality of a 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy, then by all means, follow The Elements of Style slavishly and never deviate a millimeter from the one true path.

You will find many writers and editors who believe in doing this, if you stay in the word business long enough. There is a sort of a cult of Strunk & White out there, adhered to by people obsessed with rules and order, most of them seemingly aging ascetic single women who live with cats, are stuck in mid-level copy-editing jobs, and would rather write, "This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put," than end a sentence with a preposition. In Strunk & White — or if not Strunk & White, then The Chicago Manual of Style — these people have found the sacred text they can use again and again to invoke the near-wrath of a trivial god.

The problem with Strunk & White, as with most sacred texts, is that its devotees tend to seize upon the absolutes stated in chapters 1 and 2, get bogged down somewhere in chapter 3, cherry-pick a few highlights from chapter 4, and never make it to the subtleties and ambiguities of chapter 5. The results?

A certain Mr. G. Roddenberry turns in his copy: "To boldly go where no man has gone before." Miss Strunkenwhite has a fit. "No! Never split an infinitive! Strunk & White, Chapter 3, Verse 98: it is written!"

A certain Mr. R. W. Emerson turns in his copy:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
Miss Strunkenwhite gets an attack of the vapors. When she recovers, she scribbles PASSIVE VOICE in the margin, underlines it twice and stabs down three exclamation points, and then rewrites the passage:
It was April. The farmers stood near the primitive bridge. They fired their guns. Everyone in the world heard the shots.
Remember, when writing fiction, rules are made to be broken, but the corollary to this is that you must know what the rules are before you can choose whether or not to break them. In this context, then, Strunk & White is a good tool for learning the rules quickly, and by all means you should become familiar with it.

But then, you should go read Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins.