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 ...
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