Two Stuffed Shirts Walk into a Bar: Strunk and White Want to Tell You What to Do (and Why to Ignore Them)

Cover of "The Elements of Style, Fourth E...

Cover of The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

One of the funniest things about William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style is its occasional outmoded crotchetiness.  The book’s remarkable longevity—Strunk wrote the first version in the nineteen-teens, with revisions by White resulting in new editions in the fifties and seventies—means that in some ways it’s something of a time capsule.  I can’t complain about maxims like “do not break sentences in two” (rule of usage 6) and “omit needless words” (rule of usage 17), which I fervently hope will remain timeless.  But White’s 1979 “refurbishment” of the “Misused Words and Expressions” section contains some objections that contemporary readers might be bewildered by.

Facility. Why must jails, hospitals, and schools suddenly become ‘facilities’?” (p. 46, 4th ed.)

-ize.  Do not coin verbs by adding this tempting suffix.  Many good and useful verbs do end in -ize. . . . But there is a growing list of abominations: containerize, prioritize, finalize, to name three. . . . Why say ‘utilize’ when there is the simple, unpretentious word use?” (p. 50)

Noun used as verb.  Many nouns have lately been pressed into service as verbs.  Not all are bad, but all are suspect.”  White’s examples include gift, host, chair, and debut. (p. 54)

Offputting.  Ongoing.  Newfound adjectives, to be avoided because they are inexact and clumsy. . . . Select instead a word whose meaning is clear.” (p. 54)

Call me postmodern, but it’s hard for me to imagine a world in which facility is an annoyance and prioritize is an “abomination.”  The word ongoing strikes me as pretty innocuous.  And frankly, before I read this, I didn’t even know that the verb “to host” hadn’t existed just as long as the noun “host” had.

The Elements of Style‘s apparent stuffiness underscores the limitations of the prescriptivist philosophy.  Prescriptivism is an approach to language that focuses on set systems and ideals of correct language.  Descriptivism, on the other hand, focuses on actual usage in the real world.  As prescriptivists, Strunk and White’s inflexibility dooms them to irrelevance as the language evolves.

Personally, I fall somewhere in between the two extremes.  One of English’s most delightful aspects is its adaptability—giving rise its gorgeous creativity, its intricate and irrational ramification, its trenchant wit.  Why would we let frowns and primness and rules stand in the way of all that?  On the other hand, descriptivists’ critiques of prescriptivists often boil down to “What snobs!  Everyone should stop panicking and just do what they want!”  This anarchist’s approach to language loses sight of the fact that sometimes grammar rules, along with modern conveniences like stop signs and  “Ten Items or Fewer” check-outs, clarify while they bind.*

So if you’re a writer or an editor, join me in raising a glass to Strunk and White’s grouchy-old-man approach to English—while at the same time ignoring their more offputting rules.

*Also, admittedly, if everyone stopped believing in “proper” grammar I’d be out of a job.


2 thoughts on “Two Stuffed Shirts Walk into a Bar: Strunk and White Want to Tell You What to Do (and Why to Ignore Them)

  1. Pingback: Hopefully . . . Not. | The Editor and the Beast

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