The Elements of Style

For years, I have kept Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style on my bookshelf. I tell my  students to read it. I keep telling my associate to read the copy I put on his desk, although it looks suspiciously pristine. And I am not alone. Decades of college graduates consider The Elements of Style to be the must-read writing manual.

According to Mr. Geoffrey K. Pullum, The Elements of Style is not worth the paper on which it is printed.

Pullum’s essay is from just over a year ago, and in it he tears into the “vapid” advice in The Elements of Style, advice like “be clear” and “do not explain too much.” Those bits of advice do not do any real harm, and they are well-meant; they just aren’t that helpful, he says.

More harmful are things like “use the active voice,” which Pullum singles out as particularly bad advice. In part, because the examples given are not really passive voice. As someone who attempted to teach students to generally avoid the passive voice for five years, I think it is not always easy to tell an active sentence from a passive one, but it’s true that the authors of a book titled The Elements of Style ought to have it down pat.

The essay is a good read for washed-up English majors and legal writers (some of whom are the same) alike. But in the end, I still think The Elements of Style is worthy of study. Those “vapid” bits of advice are so frequently ignored that they bear frequent repetition. And while there may be some technical problems with the examples, they don’t overcome the point at the heart of those sections.

But if you read, do it with a grain or two of salt.

50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice | The Chronicle of Higher Education