The Elements of Style: Obsolete?

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


  1. Avatar Randall R. says:

    I sat down to read it. It made my brain hurt when I read this riddle:
    “A dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses.”

  2. Avatar Bill Wilson says:

    Strunk and White is essential. For some writers, the work may be too basic for them, but they are not the majority of us. I keep this book and Bryan Garner’s style book on my shelf.

  3. Avatar Larry P. says:

    One of the most valuable parts of Strunk and White, at least IMHO, is the word comparison section.

    If you don’t know when to use “less” or “fewer”, or “aggravate” versus “irritate”, pick up a copy and peruse it. Interesting stuff!

  4. Avatar Sarah says:

    One of my college professors called this book and Frank Flaherty’s “The Elements of Story” her “Bibles for writing.” Yes, they can seem really basic, but those are some of the most important things that people often forget when they get caught up in everything else. They’re great resources!

  5. Avatar kettle or pot says:

    using a split infintive in an article on grammar. brilliant!

  6. Aaron Street Aaron Street says:

    I agree with “kettle,” Sam. How can your ideas have any merit if you will not follow the “rules?”

  7. Avatar Carry says:

    I can’t agree more! If you want a great book on how to write well, check out “Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace” by Joseph Williams.

  8. Avatar Sam Glover says:

    @Aaron: I’m a legal rebel, remember? Legal rebels don’t have to follow the rules.

  9. Avatar Susan Gainen says:

    I am a fan of Strunk & White, and I have a shelf full of other word-smithing and grammar police books. Each makes clear that the the most important parts of the Act of Writing are editing, revising, and editing again.

  10. Avatar Legal Office Guru says:

    I personally think Richard Lanham’s “Revising Prose” with its “Paramedic Method” of revising text is the best style guide I’ve seen. Due reverence for Strunk & White aside, so many people leave college and graduate/professional programs with such a bloated style of writing that it takes a pretty radical method to “unlearn” it. I just wish I’d see Lanham’s book BEFORE grad school.

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