Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is 50 years old, and gets an acerbic review by Geoffrey K. Pullum in the  Chronicle of Higher Education. [50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice] Pullum critiques S and W’s grammatical prescriptions, which form a major part of the book, and observes that the rules promoted by Elements of Style are often simply wrong, or do not conform to English usage, as found for example in the writings of canonical authors such as Mark Twain and Henry James, and are not even followed by the authors, Strunk and White, themselves. Two points about this critique, it seems to me, are important.

First, authorities such as Strunk and White, or Fowler, have a massive impact on the teaching of writing, not only in America and Britain, but throughout the world of English teaching, either directly, or through a trickle down procession of teachers who were themselves instructed that these were the authorities of English style.  Bu this influence is almost always bad, since it constrains the writer and prevents the learning of the only real lesson: the way to improve writing, the only way, is to do it. A lot. And also to read as often and as widely as possible.

Second, really good authors, like E. B. White himself, are not constrained by any rules of style, but work out and experiment with stylistic variations when they write. Sometimes they follow a conservative pattern, but at other times deviate from and transgress the rules. A born writer is one who is going to pick up and adapt such variations with ease, while most people have to work a little harder to find and learn from reading.


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