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.”
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.