The Joys of Strunk & White

27 September 2006

Tonight, my English 111 students and I will encounter the joy that is The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. & E. B. White. Joyful to me, at least, not necessarily to my students, who often fail to see the beautiful, useful, insightful, and funny side of grammar, syntax, and style as outlined by Professor Strunk and elaborated by White, his student, long after Strunk’s death.

At the last class meeting, which was canceled at the last minute due to the Tzom Gedalya fast, a decimated class population, and a tired professor, one of my students, who is incidentally a rabbi, asked me how universally recognized are Strunk & White’s principles and rules.

My answer was typical of an English professor and slightly Talmudic: “Fairly universally accepted but not completely; frequently applicable but not absolutely so.”

During last Wednesday’s class I tried to help my students wade through the Foreword (by Roger Angell, White’s stepson) and Introduction (by White). I admitted that on some of the questions of style and writing, what Jewish scholars call a machloches exists, a difference of opinion: the formerly mortal sin of placing a preposition is not considered as dire these days. After all, “This is not a practice I will put up with,” is much more straightforward than the Byzantine “This is a practice with which I will not up put.” Some of Strunk & White’s own elements are of dubious usefulness and applicability.

Then why Strunk & White, my critical student-rabbi asked. Well, I replied, the principles behind the elements are valuable: concision, directness, and clarity, among others.  Reading Strunk & White’s grammatical imperatives help us reflect on our own writing, “Does my writing possess this quality or put this principle in practice?”  These elements, aside from giving flesh to some universally useful values, allow us to evaluate our writing against a known scale or measure, a scale or measure widely considered to be a good and accurate guide to effective and efficient writing.  Even White admits these principles and elements can be violated for a specific effect or purpose. In other words, although we might agree on some absolute principles, the applications, meanings, and importance of those principles is open to debate: writing is a skill, a practice, a habit, an activity with a range of styles and standards that sometimes conflict directly.  Reading Strunk & White helps us come to terms with this sometimes stifling diversity of writing styles and standards by giving us something to embrace, jump off of, and question.
I love Strunk & White because of all the definitive pronouncements which are so helpful and at the same time are points of contention, debate, and conversation. If we conform our writing to Strunk & White’s principles, our writing will likely improve, but will it be the best it can be?

That’s what I love about writing, teaching, politics, philosophy, theology . . . all the things that this ‘blog is putatively about, and the stuff that occupies most of my time. There is room for wiggling but occasions for strictness, place for agreement and time for healthy, productive disagreement.

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One Response to “The Joys of Strunk & White”

  1. revabi Says:

    I keep Strunk and White next to me when writing, especially a sermon, not so much when blogging.
    I like how you wrote this post.

    Welcome to the revgalblogpals.

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