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E.B. White Snows Another Victim (Thanks to Cheryl for calling this to my attention!)

In today's Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley sings the praises of Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style."

And, once again, I'm amazed at the snow job White pulled. Basically, he took a book of instructions for students writing term papers for one teacher a century ago and marketed it as "rules" for you and me.

It's like me telling you that you can't chew gum because one of my teachers used to forbid it.

Yes, the book contains some great advice. (Just as my telling you not to chew gum would be helpful if you were on your way to a job interview.) But as I've written before, there are two problems with "The Elements of Style":

1. It contains overbroad statements that Prof. William Strunk Jr. surely knew did not apply outside his classroom.

2. It's pretty much the only book that's widely considered a style authority but is NEVER UPDATED.

If you don't think that's a problem, compare Strunk and White's "rules" on the words "healthy," "nauseous," and "like" versus "as" with any current dictionary. Compare their "rules" on forming possessives with the "Chicago Manual of Style." Or compare the original "Elements of Style" to the version that was born when White got his hands on it.

The author, Strunk, never meant this book to go public. He wrote it for his students as instructions on how to hand in their papers. (That's why the pre-White version contains references to writing on "ruled paper" -- references White took out.) Only after Strunk's death did his former student White team up with a clever publisher to spin the classroom guide into something it's not.

I'm sure White wasn't deliberately trying to pull a con. I'm sure he believed that his former teacher's "rules" were law. So the snow job goes on ...

11 Comment count
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Another idol bites the dust.

June, please leave us a few Gods. Too fast I'm becoming a writing "atheist." Varily, without you and Jennifer Gibson I'd have no icons.

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I'm ...

I'm a big believer in not believing.

It's really quite liberating.

For me, grammar is much cooler than rule books can convey. (Ditto that for issues like human morality and the meaning of existence.)

I cheer Strunk's advice to "omit unnecessary words" (in most cases), just as I cheer "thou shalt not kill" (in most cases). But Dr. Seuss and the ebola virus demonstrate the importance of disclaimers such as "in most cases." They demonstrate that it's usually unwise to give "rules" and rule-makers our unmitigated reverence.

 You know what I'm sayin'?

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And I bet you ain't even ordained.

By gar, June. You just presented a better sermon than I've heard in a month of Sundays. Let me add a hearty, "Amen!"

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: )

.. and with that, I will pass around this collection tray. Dig, brother. Dig deep.

: )

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But but but but but....but

I LIKE E.B. White.  :(

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Me, too!

He was a wonderful writer. He was just a little too starry-eyed about his former teacher. (Starry-eyed in a way that ended up making somebody a whole lotta money.)

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I hear ya.

A poet I know complains that we often take the "omit unnecessary words" rule too far. It leads to Tonto-speak, she says.

Cheryl Snell www.shivasarms.blogspot.com

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Tonto! I love that!

Yeah, for me it's all about drawing a clear line between "advice" and "rules." Advice can be weighed, revered, and followed. But it can also be discarded. "Rules" not so much.

I believe that in grammar there are hard-and-fast rules. Lots of 'em. Just too many people don't realize what a style guide's role is.

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I've always liked:

"do not affect a breezy manner."

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I don't remember that one. Sounds like Strunk, though: Great advice for a dissertation on torture. Not so great for a community newspaper feature article on tomato-growing.

: )

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It was revised (updated) four times after White got hold of it. That's four primary revisions, with countless smaller fixes made between its many printings.