The Book that Ate America’s Brain

After Margaret Donsbach’s comment the other day, about choosing active over passive verbs, I reached out for a book which wasn’t there. I often lend writing manuals to students. Too often the book is returned the following week with the student saying, ‘Thank you so much, I really enjoyed that.’ What I would like them to say is, ‘It was so rich I couldn’t get past page 5 and still digest everything. I have to keep referring to it. Can I borrow it another week?’ But obviously one student did find that, and that’s where my Strunk and White is.
‘Strunk and White’ is the US bible of good writing practice.
From Wikipedia: ‘Cornell University English professor William Strunk, Jr., wrote The Elements of Style in 1918, privately published it in 1919, and first revised it in 1935 with editor Edward A. Tenney. In 1957 at The New Yorker magazine, the style guide reached the attention of writer E. B. White, who had studied writing under Strunk in 1919, but had since forgotten the “little book” that he described as a “forty-three-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.

Weeks later, he wrote a feature story lauding the professor’s devotion to lucid written English prose. Meantime, Macmillan and Company publishers had commissioned White to revise The Elements of Style, then 41 years old, for a 1959 edition, because Strunk had died 13 years earlier, in 1946. His expansion and modernization of the 1935 revised edition yielded the new writing style manual, since known as Strunk & White, whose first revised edition sold some two million copies. Since 1959 the total sales of three editions of the book, in four decades, exceeded ten million copies.’
E.B. White was the author of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and a collection of fabulous essays which should be at everyone’s elbow as a source of inspiration.
I have always tried to practise this active over passive principle. In short, instead of writing, ‘I was pounced on by the cat,’ you would say, ‘the cat pounced on me.’ The active version is more immediate and invites imaginative participation by the reader. So, as a quick way the liven up the writing, adopt the principle.
Reading on about Strunk and White in Wiki, I discovered that this principle appeared in the third edition, which White enlarged. The entry goes on:
‘E.B. White advises writers to have the proper mind-set, that they write to please themselves, and to aim for, in the phrase of Robert Louis Stevenson, “one moment of felicity.”

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. The Elements of Style.’ 

Who could argue with that? It’s a perfect principle beautifully stated. But of course, there are English lit professors who know much better than me:
In criticizing The Elements of Style, Geoffrey Pullum, professor of linguistics at the University of Edinburgh and co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, said:
‘The book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules . . . It’s sad. Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write however or than me or was or which, but can’t tell you why.’
Specifically, Prof. Pullum said that Strunk and White misunderstood what constitutes the passive voice, and criticized their proscribing established usages such as the split infinitive and the use of which in a restrictive relative clause. He also criticizes The Elements of Style in Language Log, a linguists’ blog about language in popular media, for promoting linguistic prescriptivism and hypercorrection among Anglophones, referring to it as “the book that ate America’s brain.”
In the Boston Globe newspaper’s review of The Elements of Style Illustrated (2005) edition describes the writing manual as an “aging zombie of a book . . . a hodgepodge, its now-antiquated pet peeves jostling for space with 1970s taboos and 1990s computer advice.”
Pardon me?
If you’re not familiar with Wikipedia, anyone can create or edit an entry. On the whole I find Wiki very reliable, but you need to develop a sixth sense about exactly who’s been adding stuff in.
Strunk and White has helped if not created a couple of generations of fine writers. I unreservedly recommend it as a style guide. But if you think it’s going to eat your brain, then by all means, find another, but don’t leave style as something that comes naturally. It doesn’t.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. What a fun post – I hadn’t realized Strunk & White was so controversial. I’m amused, actually, that a comment of mine inspired a blog post on Strunk & White. I do own a copy, but only acquired it after hearing for a couple of decades that it was the best writing manual in existence. In my career as a student, I strangely escaped the typical instruction in grammar that gave other students a horror of it. I remember with fondness a single, brief stint in sentence diagramming when I was in sixth grade; it was a novelty to me, a new way of playing with words. Mostly, I came to grammar in what I still think is the best way, by reading and reading and reading and reading, and gradually getting a sense of what type of prose seemed boring and impenetrable to me, and what type felt lively and vivid and so clear I could forget I was reading and simply feel the characters’ world come alive around me. There is a place for passive voice, I think, but mostly not in fiction. It can be awfully useful to government officials who wish to avoid committing themselves or offending others. (“Mistakes were made…”)

  2. Don’t think I’m having a dig – I’m not, but I have a confession.
    I have no idea what an active or passive verb is. I occasionally have to stop and think what an adverb is (I do know what a verb and a noun is – so I have a little saving grace!)
    I only know a split infinitive because of boldly going with Star Trek. ( ‘To boldly go,’ should, I believe, be ‘to go boldly)
    I failed my 11 plus, I went to a secondary modern school for girls, where we were expected to become shop assistants, hair dressers, and housewives (no disrespect intended to any of those categories.)
    I spent most of my time during the dull, dreary lessons writing stories. English lessons I loved, but we weren’t taught things like passive verbs because we were not the bright grammar school kids.
    For my careers talk when I was 16, I was asked what I wanted to do when leaving school at 16 (College? University…. you are joking. They were not on the agenda for the likes of us.) I passionately wanted to be an author, but I thought that authors were clever people who had been to Uni, held Phd’s and – knew all about passive verbs and such stuff. So I said I wanted to be a journalist.
    The career’s mistress laughed. “Don’t be silly, Helen. You can’t type.”
    No reference to my English ability – just that I couldn’t type (actually, I still can’t, I use four fingers. I’ve tried teaching myself to touch-type several times – gave up.)
    I was sent to work as a library assistant. Yes I loved being with the books. Hated the job. Had a nervous breakdown on the verge of suicide after working there for 12 years because I was so miserable..
    Even though I can’t type, have no idea of passive verbs, I’ve managed to write eight published novels, and a children’s book, all of which appear to have been well received.
    Yes, I rely on my editor, Jo Field, to pick out the major bloopers of going boldly or boldly going, but – and please don’t take this wrong – I think writing is more about having the talent, the gift, to be able to write a readable story than be about whether the author knows what a passive verb or a simile or a whatever is.
    I once suggested to a wanna-be writer that as he was writing historical fiction he would be better to use “you had” instead of “you’d” and “it will” rather than “it’ll” because it sounded too modern as dialogue.
    He answered “Yes I know about xxxxxx” using the correct term for abbreviating these sort of things….. I have no idea what that term is, and do you know what? I don’t give a toss that I don’t! This hopeful author used all the correct passive verbs and so ons – but the story itself was absolutely dire. Poor plot, poor continuity, poor dialogue, unbelievable characters – all tell and not show etc. The English grammar was spot on correct – but the novel will never be picked up by a publisher because it was, to be blunt, utter garbage.
    No disrespect Linda, but if I’d read The Elements of Style I doubt I would be sitting here writing this. It would have re-enforced what my secondary school teachers knew all along; that the girls who passed through their doors with their skirts rolled up at the waist to shorten them, were nothing more than shop assistants, hair dressers and housewives.
    Fortunately, I never read The Elements of Style, so I became an author – despite everything.
    I learnt how to write by reading, reading, reading. Reading GOOD fiction written by good authors (who probably had read The Elements of Style.)
    Nor can I tell you what makes a book good (or bad) I just know because it either sounds/feels right or it doesn’t.
    (I couldn’t tell you why a piece of meat was “off” – all I’d know is that it smelt and tasted funny.)
    My favourite author of all time – as with many UK writers of historical fiction was (still is) Rosemary Sutcliff. I doubt she read The Elements, or any such book. Nor did she receive much of an education because for most of her childhood and teenage years she was in a sanatorium (hospital) because of illness. She was crippled, from an early age, by arthritis. Her only companions – and education – were books.
    The beauty of her words in her best novels (Eagle of the Ninth, Frontier Wolf, Mark of the Horse Lord) outweigh any “This is how you should write” book.
    Incidentally, our English mistress must have known a little of what she was doing, because one thing I can remember from those days back in the early 60’s….. she read us The Queen Elizabeth Story by Rosemary Sutciff.
    One further observation.
    Isn’t language supposed to be fluid? If we stuck rigidly to the rules, wouldn’t it stagnate?
    Sorry Linda, I hear what you are saying – and a very interesting and thought provoking article, but I’ll remain boldly going.

    1. Thank you for your honest and impassioned response, Helen. I think for most of us we were sorely let down in the matter of grammar study at school but, who knows, that may have been for the best in the end.

  3. I agree with Helen – that maybe it is more a combination of natural talent, instinctively and unconsciously picking up on and patterning your own writing/storytelling after the good writers, the ones that really grab you. Then, the small adjustments to grammar, tense, POV just put a nice professional gloss on it all. There has to be some natural story-telling talent there first. All the writing workshops and manuals can’t do a darned thing for someone who can’t write. (Well, maybe they can tech write … but nothing that readers would absorb for the fun of it.)

    1. I would challenge ‘adjustments to PoV’ being equivalent to putting a gloss on things after this week’s experience of hacking into my finely-woven prose to find a new shape, inspired by an earlier post on the topic of PoV. It’s been extreme surgery, but boy, am I pleased with the results. But otherwise, of course, I agree, although I’m not quite sure how the idea that we start with manuals rather than stories ever got into this thread. 🙂

  4. I really enjoyed Linda’s post, especially since I tend to start with a passive, convoluted sentence, then say “Yike!” and clean it up.
    Like Celia, I study the writers who really put a smile on my face with their prose. I also hold my nose and read really awful stuff, figure out why it’s driving me crazy, and watch out for the turgid or trite in my own writing “like the plague.”

    1. What a good idea to analyze the bad stuff as well as the good; in fact, to analyze at all is a good idea.

  5. I feel there is something I need to make clear. If I didn’t make it clear at the outset, it’s because it didn’t occur to me that I’d be upsetting anyone by celebrating my indebtedness to what is now considered a ‘hodgepodge’ of a book. So, it’s this…
    Style is something that some writers have in the forefront of their minds from the outset. They are called literary writers. What I’m recommending is for us storytellers to use the principles of style as an editing tool on text which is already written. It’s simply a means of revision. We all write sloppy text sometimes, no matter how naturally gifted or well read we are. These little tricks help us tighten up the prose. That’s all. And of course, it absolutely (** adverb alert **)goes without saying that you are utterly (**adverb alert**) free to ignore this advice, but read on before you do.
    Since there has been such a riotous response to this post, I’m getting all fired up to do another on Friday, this time about adverbs, since a friend of mine, on the brink of having her first novel accepted, has been strongly (**adverb alert**) advised to remove most of her adverbs. And that, my friends, is pure Strunk and White.

  6. The active version is more immediate and invites imaginative participation by the reader. So, as a quick way the liven up the writing, adopt the principle.
    Sorry for showing up and quibbling months after the original post (here via googling for “book that ate America’s brain”) but I do wonder how much of this observation is down to confirmation bias.
    Why, exactly, is “I was pounced on by the cat” less immediate, or less inviting of imaginative participation than “the cat pounced on me”? I will certainly give you that “the cat pounced on me” invites me to imagine the act of pouncing, while “I was pounced on by the cat” invites me to imagine the individual being pounced upon, but I do not see that one is inherently more immediate than the other.
    Culling some examples from today’s tabloid headlines (which one might reasonably expect to be designed to sound immediate and promote imaginative participation) we see such examples as:
    “Extremism will be met with more democracy”
    “British holiday makers warned as ‘killer seaweed’ strikes Brittany beaches”
    “London 2012 medals unveiled as party marks one year to go before Olympics”
    “Schoolgirl bullied about her appearance has last laugh…”
    “Chris Huhne cleared after probe…”
    There are, of course, many situations where it would indeed be ludicrous to use the passive (nobody describes their morning routine by saying “my bed was got out of, my breakfast eaten, and a shower taken by me”) but the suggestion that it’s somehow “weaker” than the active seems patently false. Indeed one could argue that the passive is often *more forceful* than the active (since it is often used for absolute proclamations like “Extremism will be met with more democracy” or “trespassers will be prosecuted”).

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