The Elements of Style – better known as Strunk and White for its authors, William Strunk and E.B. White – is fifty years old.
The publisher has brought out a 50th Anniversary Edition. Newspapers and magazines have waxed elegiac on the subject. Famous people say they can’t write without it.
I have a confession: I don’t use it. I never have.
And I make my living as a writer. Not only do I write fiction (and blog posts), I also write on legal and governmental issues for a large publisher of books and notification services for professionals.
I’ve even worked as an editor, charged with the enforcement of company style rules. But I don’t use Strunk and White.
I think I bought a copy once, when I read somewhere that every writer should have one. I may even have read some of it. I don’t think I threw it down in disgust – I’d probably remember that. I just didn’t pay much attention and lost it along the way.
But then, I didn’t learn to write from studying grammar. I learned to write the same way I learned to speak: from my mother.
I was lucky. My mother, Marie Peterman Moore, was an editor, and a very good one. She taught me to write by editing the papers I wrote for school. Along the way I developed an ear for writing that trumped all the nonsense the grammar-focused English teachers tried to shove down my throat. (The literature-focused English teachers were a different matter.)
I don’t remember my mother ever mentioning Strunk and White, though she was a New Yorker reader and knew the work of E.B. White. I wish she were still here, so I could call her up and ask her what she thought of it. (It’s little things like this that make me realize how much I miss her.)
I just realized while writing that my mother was the first person who taught me something else all writers must learn: Everybody needs an editor. Or, at least, a good first reader. Whether you’re writing a paper for school or a book for millions, you need to have someone else look at it before you turn it loose.
My mother often observed that Charles Dickens needed an editor.
Of course, you also need to learn to edit yourself. I don’t have an editor available for my blog posts, so I have to try to comb back through them and figure out if I said what I meant to say the way I meant to say it. And it’s rude and unprofessional to turn in sloppy work to your editor. But still, nothing beats a fresh pair of eyes to let you know if you’ve missed something important, to fix the awkward sentences, and to catch those mistakes that you just never saw.
You do have to learn how to apply English grammar rules – notice I don’t say memorize them. It’s impossible to communicate effectively if you stray too far afield, and, besides, you can’t break a rule creatively unless you know you’re breaking it.
But English – being a hodgepodge language to begin with and happily adopting words from a variety of other tongues, not to mention making them up – English is not a language for prescriptivists. (And yes, I know English is not a person or group of persons and therefore cannot adopt or make up or probably even be; see the previous paragraph on breaking rules creatively.)
Prescriptivist is a term I picked up reading Language Log, a delightful blog run by professional linguists, some of whom (Geoffrey Pullum in particular) delight in bashing Strunk and White. In fact, Pullum and a few other people bashed it quite nicely recently in The New York Times. Before I read Language Log, I just called prescriptivists nit-pickers and disagreed with many of the nits they considered important.
I don’t think writers need Strunk and White. Writers need to read lots and lots of other writers – both good and bad ones – to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. They need to write as much as they can, and experiment with their own styles. And they need to find good editors and readers to give them feedback (I think “feedback” is one of those words that prescriptivists abhor, but I find it very descriptive).
There are times when style rules have to be followed. Newspapers, magazines, publishers – all have styles rules so that their publications will be consistent. But you don’t need to study Strunk and White to work for them; you just need whatever style book they use – AP, Chicago, MLA, or their own compilation (I have my company’s style book around here somewhere).
Just don’t mistake any style book for the Gospel. (Actually, maybe you shouldn’t mistake the Gospel for the Gospel, but that’s a topic for another post.)
Nancy Jane’s flash fiction this week is “How to Deal With the Coming Crisis,” a story ripped from the current headlines about swine flu.
Check out Nancy Jane Moore’s Bookshelf for more stories.