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Strunk & White and Williams

Topics/tags: Language, teaching

Lingua Franca, one of the regular columns in Chronicle of Higher Education, describes itself as being about language and writing in academe. Although I don’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the old academic magazine of the same name [1], it is on the list of things I read regularly.

A recent column was about the 100th anniversary of Strunk (and, later, Strunk & White’s) The Elements of Style. You can tell the author’s perspective from the title of the column: Strunk at 100: A Centennial Not to Celebrate. While I would have read the column in any case, the associated blurb in the daily Chronicle digest caught my eye.

Geoff Pullum argues that professors should stop sending students to a thoroughly outdated writing guide — and cites some alternatives.

I entered the piece enthusiastic to hear his criticisms of Strunk & White and, as importantly, to hear what books he recommended. I wondered to myself, Will he recommend one of Joe Williams’ texts? If so, which one?

I won’t reveal all of Pullum’s criticisms; you should read the piece. However, I can’t resist reporting at least a few of his comments.

It is unforgivably lazy for instructors to continue directing 21st-century students to a text on the English language written by a man who learned it in the 19th century.

Despite its title, Strunk’s book hardly touched the topic of style.

What about his recommendations for alternatives? There are only two. One is Williams’ Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. The other is The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. I guess the blurb is correct in that he cites some alternatives, but I was expecting a bit more than just the names of two titles. I’m certainly thrilled to see Williams cited. And I’m going to take a look at the Pinker book.

Of course, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace is a somewhat problematic recommendation give that the UofC press has allowed it to go out of print. I wonder whether the article will have any effect on it coming back into print. In any case, I continue to pick up used copies when I can so that I have enough to loan to students and colleagues. But it would be nice for it to be back in print.

On a separate note, I will admit that I got a bit frustrated at many of the comments [2], most of which are on the order of Strunk & White’s essential message is: Simple, Clear, Direct. I talk to my students about these three words in every class. That’s all well and good, but it ignores one of the key criticisms: Strunk & White don’t teach you how to achieve those goals. Here’s a followup I wrote (which may or may not appear, depending on what the moderators do).

There’s a big difference between telling and teaching. As Pullum suggests, although Strunk & White tell students to be simple, clear, and direct, they do not teach them strategies for achieving simplicity, clarity, and directness. (Or perhaps they do not sufficiently teach them these strategies.) Take a look at Williams’ Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, in which he carefully breaks down how people read works and ways to achieve the three basic goals. It’s not perfect, but it gives students guidance on how to reach the goals and accepts that reaching the goals requires work.

That reminds me: I should probably re-read Williams. Maybe I’ll make it my next choice for the Rebelsky Family Book Club. Or maybe not it’s not available on Kindle.

However and whenever I re-read Williams, I expect that it will have an effect on how I write. It’s been too long since I’ve thought carefully about the principles he promotes. I’m pretty sure that I generally meet the Strunk & White principles of Clear, Simple, Direct [3,4]. Nonetheless, I know that when I edit my writing with Williams in mind, I become a better writer.

[1] I’m pretty sure that the old Lingua Franca was important in spreading discussions of the Sokal experiment, among other things.

[2] I’d swear there were no comments the first two times I looked at the article; there are a bunch now.

[3] Should that be a TLA? Make your writing CSD!

[4] Admittedly, my writing is not always clear, simple, and direct. For example, I have a nasty habit of using too many endnotes [5]. There are times I ramble [6]. And I know that there are times I digress into sophomoric approaches to writing, such as when I annoyingly accentuate my abnormal affinity for alliteration.

[5] You may be surprised to hear me admit that it is possible to have too many endnotes. But it’s true.

[6] I suppose one can be clear, simple, and direct when they ramble. However, nested footnotes [7] are rarely simple and direct.

[7] Like these.

Version 1.0 of 2018-06-28.