Revisiting the Elements of Style

Marina Ziemnick

I remember the first time I picked up a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. The silver book was enticingly thin and petite, boasting just under one hundred pages. I was still on summer break, though as a homeschool student, “break” was a bit of a misnomer (it’s quite easy for schoolwork to follow you home when you’re already there). My online composition course was kicking off in a couple weeks, and the teacher had assigned The Elements of Style as summer reading to prepare for the months of writing ahead.

I don’t remember much about the book’s contents. I imagine I read it cover-to-cover, both because there wasn’t that much material to get through and because I tended to be my most diligent before the school year actually started. I do remember the stern instruction to “omit needless words,” and the mantra continues to echo in my mind when I write and edit today—I’m sure many superfluous adjectives and adverbs have been sent to their graves as a result. I’ve also had the preference for active voice over passive voice ingrained in me for years, though I can’t recall whether I learned it from the trusty little book or picked it up elsewhere. Beyond that, the only real memory I have of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is of the front cover.

According to NAS President Peter Wood, my writing is better off for it. Dr. Wood shares his list of grievances against William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White’s “compendium of do’s and don’ts” in an article for Spectator World. He takes issue with some of the specific rules, such as “do not explain too much” and “write in a way that comes naturally,” for being vague and generally unhelpful. However, Dr. Wood’s deeper concern is not so much with the content of The Elements of Style as the way the book is often treated. He explains: 

Some rules may be worth setting down. Strunk and White, taken in stride, may do little harm. The real fault with the book is that so many instructors make so much of it and so many students take it as authoritative. The result is certain prissiness in writing, an unwillingness to discover what a versatile, vigorous sentence can do. Strunk and White set down the conventions of a meticulous editor who has no idea of the subtlety and stealth of imaginative writing that can transform even the most unpromising subject into an entertainment and a feast.

Rather than teaching students to memorize a set of rules, Dr. Wood suggests that we “teach students to love words—to sense their contours, their subtle textures and the meanings inside the meanings.” One of the best ways to inculcate the love of words is to encourage students to read widely and tackle books in a variety of genres. Grammar instruction is important, for sure, but diagramming sentences won’t entice most students to fall in love with the nuances of the English language. On the other hand, realizing how his favorite novelist or essayist weaves words together in a way that compels him to keep reading just might.

Dr. Wood concludes the article with his own advice for aspiring writers. “My own counsel on style is: challenge your reader enough to keep him interested. No one wants to read what he already knows. Be playful. Spot unexpected connections. Break rules. And shun Strunk and White as the killjoys they really are.” In other words, learn the “rules” of grammar and style—and then discover the power of purposefully and artfully breaking them.

Developing your voice as a writer is a journey that never ends. It starts not with digesting a list of do’s and don’ts, but with discovering the voice of the author in the stories you know and love. I don’t remember the specific rules that I read in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, but I remember eagerly devouring books like Kate DiCamillo’s Tale of Despereaux and White’s own Charlotte’s Web when I first learned to read. I didn’t think much about the authors behind the books at first or the writing styles they adopted, but the transition came naturally enough as I grew older. When I read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, I found myself wondering how much of Jo’s character came from Alcott’s own life. In time, my attention turned to the nuances of the prose itself. I still remember staring aghast at Graham Greene’s usage of colons (three or four to a sentence is commonplace for him)—and then mischievously throwing multiple into sentences in my next writing assignment.

When I packed for college the summer before my freshman year, I dutifully tucked my copy of The Elements of Style into the box of books for my desk. I can’t say that I ever referenced it throughout the many hours of paper and essay writing in the years ahead, but it felt like something I should bring. As it turns out, the most important writing tools can’t be packed in a box—or in a 100-page book. There’s no formula for becoming a strong and engaging writer. But cultivating a love of the written word is a good place to start.

Marina Ziemnick is a Communications Associate at the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Amador Loureiro, Public Domain

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