Chris Blattman

Close this search box.

Strunk & White: 50 years of stupid grammar advice?

The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students’ grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.

That is linguistics professor Geoffrey Pullum writing in The Chronicle Review. He makes many pointed points and, most damning, shows a striking number of mistakes and contradiction.

But I always loved Strunk & White, and still do. So long as you don’t read it like a rule book, but know when and where to break the rules, you are fine. “Knowing the rules and then breaking them” is probably as good a description of excellent writing as I can manage.

What else to read? On Writing Well, more than any book, probably had the most influence on my style. Writing Tools is by no means profound, but has some helpful bits. The author’s more recent book, The Glamour of Grammar is pretty much useless.

I remain surprised that writers and journalists everywhere seem to celebrate Stephen King’s On Writing. I have been intrigued enough to buy it, but not yet intrigued enough to read it.

Finally, if you’re into really inexpert and doubtful advice, see my own advice on essay writing.

9 Responses

  1. I quite liked Steven King, but even more I sucked up Lawrence Block’s writing advice back when I was writing some novels. And Dorothea Brande. And yes, I have Zinsser’s ON WRITING WELL on my shelf.

    But I never have cared for Strunk & White. To tell the truth, my favorite “writing book”, the one thing I read and read while writing, the thing that makes me most careful about the words I use and how I use them and choose to punctuate them is H. W. Fowler’s MODERN ENGLISH USAGE, which I have read with reverence and pleasure for almost half a century now. There is a counterpart in this country — Follett’s MODERN AMERICAN USAGE — which may be excellent, but is never engrossing.

  2. Stephen King’s “On Writing” is more an autobiography than a book on “how to write well.” Even his insights on writing are really more appropriate to his favorite genre than for all fiction. It’s a worthwhile read, but not a guide to writing well.

  3. Stephen King’s is my favorite book of the bunch; I’m curious as to why you’re hesitant. Certainly worth flipping through if it’s within arm’s reach.

    Pullum’s critique of Strunk & White seems fair, if a bit too angry. I’m glad he went easy on their style advice, as this is, to me, what makes the book most valuable to young writers. It’s easy to take issue with Strunk & White when it’s undeservedly held up as a flawless gold standard. It helps to simply ignore the book’s notoriety. When I pick it up, I imagine the authors to be a pair of very smart college freshmen. Expect some nonsense and way too much confidence, but hey, the kids are smart. Expect to learn something.

  4. The best course I ever had at any level and in any subject was John Trimble’s undergraduate writing course, and his “Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing” is superb and a joy to read. The whole book is an illustration of the advice it offers.

  5. I am finally beginning to understand why it’s so damn difficult to write for US editors. As opposed to UK ones.

    Write for a UK newspaper and these peeps called “subeditors” will transform your prose into whatever is the house style of that paper. The use of – or : , split infinitives and so on.

    Yes, yes, lovely, you’ve something interesting to say and we’ll deal with the details of how you say it.

    US editing seems to run entirely the other way. It’s hung up on these rules of how you say it. Pieces can get sent back for the correction of a sentence with only one comma in it (Eh? That’s what the subeditors do).

    And yet the US editing process (and I’m thinking specifically of a magazine piece I did) manage to lose all the meaning, the jokes, the “trills” in the editing.


    In one piece I did about weird metals, I referred to the isotopes of uranium (235 and 238) as U-Bang and U-Not Bang. Stylistic invention, maybe good and maybe not, but just not allowable in a US publication, according to those editors.

    Bah, Humbug!

  6. Orwell’s Politics and the English Language is in my mind the best, most entertaining short piece on writing.

  7. I loved this essay when it first came out, and I love it just as much now. If only we could get the folks at the NYT’s “after deadline” blog to read and understand these things — inevitably they turn to ignorant criticism of split infinitives and epicene “they”s. It’s actually quite depressing.

  8. Funny you should post this on the same day that does Elements of Style as well.

Why We Fight - Book Cover
Subscribe to Blog