Why I Don’t Use Strunk and White: An Essay From Brewing Fine Fiction

Brewing Fine FictionAre you struggling with your NaNoWriMo project? The Storybundle collection of books on writing for National Novel Writing Month is still available.

Book View Cafe anthology Brewing Fine Fiction is part of that deal. In addition, Judith Tarr’s Writing Horses and Marie Brennan’s Writing Fight Scenes are part of the bonus books. It’s a great time to build up your e-library of writing advice.

As a teaser, here is one of my essays from Brewing Fine Fiction:

Strunk and White: Fifty Years Is Long Enough

The Elements of Style – better known as Strunk and White for its original 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. Never have.

And I make my living as a writer. Not only do I write fiction and essays, 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 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 talk: from my mother.

I was lucky. My mother, Marie Peterman Moore, was an editor, a very good editor. 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; some of them introduced me to great things.)

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 alive, so I could call her up and ask her what she thought of it. Every time I come across something that I know my mother would have an answer to, I realize just how much I miss her.

My mother was the person who taught me something all writers must learn: Everybody needs an editor. 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 just because you’re to lazy to look at your story again.

But all writers get too close to their work. A fresh pair of eyes can tell if you’ve missed something important, fix the awkward sentences, and catch those mistakes 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 –a hodgepodge language that has happily adopted 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 K. 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 laughed at some of the nits about which they obsessed.

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 rules have to be followed. Newspapers, magazines, publishers – all have style 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.

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 essay.)

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Why I Don’t Use Strunk and White: An Essay From Brewing Fine Fiction — 18 Comments

  1. Oddly enough, I do use S&W, though. I absorbed it in high school and still get it out now and then. That’s because cranky and crabby as it is, it doesn’t tell you what to do, but what not to do. I do argue with it on occasion, but on the whole, it’s served me well.

    The read Crab of Crabs is Fowler’s English Usage.

      • I’ve reached for it to check quick facts that I guess haven’t fallen into error (that I know of anyway)–it was handy, and easy to navigate. But for serious grammatical queries I’ve used other sources.

  2. Geoffrey Pullum explains the problems with Strunk and White better than I do in this article from 2009. I particularly like his ending: “English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can’t even tell when they’ve broken their own misbegotten rules.”

    • So this is where all the seemingly-ubiquitous admonishments against adverbs and adjectives and the passive tense come from!

      Most of my teachers and professors through the years upheld these “rules” but none of them could ever definitively explain them. And, of course, being the rebel that I am, if the rule didn’t make sense, I’d consider it arbitrary – in other words, to be followed or dismissed as I saw fit.

      Poetic license and all that…

      • Best advice I ever got was from a hardass Composition 101 professor: “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” She also said, “When you’re published, you can whatever you want. Until then, you’ll do it my way.”

        As I said, she was hardass.

        Personally I think of the rules as being like the Pirates’ Code.

      • There are sound linguistic reasons to avoid the passive voice, Zena. And good narrative ones to avoid laying on adverbs with a trowel, too. You can think of “rules” not as laws laid down from above, but descriptions of the effects of doing certain things.

        • According to the linguists on Language Log, many condemnations of passive voice cite examples that are not, in fact, passive voice. Instead of trying to remember the rules about passive voice — which are much more complicated than “avoid to be” despite the way many people interpret them — I make an effort to use verbs that are descriptive in and of themselves. That reduces the need for adverbs, too.

          • “Avoid to be” is a great example of BAD advice. It has nothing to do with passive voice per se, is why. That’s what happen when you don’t learn the “rules”. Strunk and White at least know what the passive voice is. And one of their big messages is use descriptive verbs . . . just as you are saying. 🙂

            Yes, there is no such thing as an infinitive in English, so it’s impossible to split one.

            Look, I should do a blog post on this stuff and not fill up the comments.
            I do happen to be a descriptivist, not a perscriptivist, when it comes to syntax, so I agree that “rule” is a silly word to use.

        • I guess it really boils down to whether or not one has crafted one’s sentences to convey exactly what one wants them to convey. Simply blindly applying rules because they’re the rules makes for very dry storytelling.

          Yes, of course, knowing the rudiments is essential. But it’s like cooking: once you’ve learned the basics, following the recipe exactly will result in a passable meal; tweaking and massaging it will make it outstanding and memorable – and distinctive. Knowing when to stick with tried and true technique and when to tweak is the key.

          Following the rules does not necessarily an effective writer make.

          (Says the person who has spent the better part of her adult years lecturing young minds on the difference between “that” and “who” and “less” and “fewer” – among other grammatical archaisms).

  3. “My mother was the person who taught me something all writers must learn: Everybody needs an editor.”

    Heh heh: I’ve always wondered about the editing process for James Joyce’s Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. I picture his editor sitting down with a keg of ale and a candle and reading the manuscript through the night until he (I assume, given the era, that it was a “he”) fell off his chair, proclaiming “Aye lad, it all makes perfect sense!”