Sign up ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I was reading the comments on this answer where several users claimed that Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style was “misinformed, hypocritical, and wrong” and “flat-out wrong or totally misleading”, so I’d love to get a delineated list of where it is wrong.

Note: I have no position on this or axe to grind; I’ve just used it for years and would love to learn what I’ve been doing wrong thanks to it.

share|improve this question
Vote to close as "not a real question". From the reaction to the answer I posted, this seems to be a rhetorical question. – delete Sep 12 '10 at 0:49
@Shinto Sherlock: This is not a rhetorical question in the least; it is a genuine and honest question. I asked the question here because I honestly want to get input from others like @nohat, @Kosmonaut and @kiamlaluno who seem to take great pride in offering well written and well considered answers. I'm here to learn. It seems maybe you just didn't like that I didn't accept your link as an answer; are you retaliating? If so that is a really nasty way to behave. You'll note I didn't down vote your answer even though I feel it is substandard. – MikeSchinkel Sep 12 '10 at 1:16
S&W is mostly Opinion, not rules, about Style, which is itself subjective. I believe this is even stated in the book. I have a few nits to pick with it, but overall I find it helpful and entertaining. when I get home this evening I'll take mine off the shelf and see if I can list some of the warts and good parts. In France they have (so I'm told) an Official Body that amounts to Language Police. Us Anglo-phones gets to be way looser. – mickeyf Sep 15 '10 at 14:26
I downvoted this question because I don't think anybody can answer it. As mickeyf said, style manuals are mostly opinion. The opinions may be based on good evidence, but you pick almost any element of style and you can find someone who won't like your way of doing it. – J D OConal Sep 18 '10 at 3:01
Hi @J D OConal: Thanks for explaining the downvote. I noticed in numerous answers here that people were stating that S&W is wrong as if by canon so I wanted to know why so I could disregard those aspects (@RegDwight I now realize the "canon" aspect is more meta but again I'm not here to comment on governance I just wanted to learn.) That said @J D OConal I think you are wrong in your analysis. I'm not asking for what's wrong with the book as a whole but for what's wrong with specific passages so I can avoid them. If that's not possible than nothing on this site can be answered. – MikeSchinkel Sep 18 '10 at 14:22

7 Answers 7

[Edit: I never intended or expected this answer to be voted so high, so I didn't bother stating up-front the bleeding obvious: that if you suffer from the delusion that The Elements of Style is a book of grammar rules rather than a book about two guys' preferences, well, you're wrong. For a tedious list of rules in the book that aren't grammar rules, see (thanks to Robert Bixler's answer) this article by Pullum, which is a slightly better version of that silly rant. Of course I strongly disagree with the tone of the essay, its false claims about the book, its idea that the faults of the American education system can be blamed on a single book, and its insinuations about the authors' character (seriously!), for which see the rest of this answer.]

[Preliminary note: the first edition (1918) by Strunk is available online, so you can read the book and judge for yourselves. It's a short book, with mostly sound advice, worth reading once. It's terse and concise.]

Frankly, there's not all that much wrong with the book. And except for a few people like Pullum (the linguist and author of that rant), the book is still beloved by most, and is recommended by writers across the spectrum from Stephen King to Steven Pinker. But it is important to understand what the book is and isn't.

Most importantly, it's a style guide, not a grammar textbook or reference. The authors do not claim to teach grammar; the book should not be used to learn grammar. They make absolutely no claims about English syntax, but at best about what sounds like good style to them. The very fact that some issue is a matter of style implies that there are multiple alternatives that are perfectly grammatical and in use, even by great writers. It is the job of the authors of a style guide to recommend one alternative over others; the book is supposed to be opinionated. Indeed, White's introduction to the book even says

I treasure The Elements of Style for [...] the audacity and self-confidence of its author. [...] He had a number of likes and dislikes that were almost as whimsical as the choice of a necktie, yet...

So of course the book is idiosyncratic; that's one of the endearing things about it. Pullum seems to have confused it for a book on grammar — odd, since he wrote an excellent grammar book and knows what one looks like.


With a book like this, it's implicit that you, the reader, must consider each element of style advice as the opinion of the author, not follow it blindly, and use your own good sense and examples from good writing. If you find that your considered opinion on something they advocate is different, you just ignore the advice and move on — at least it has made you think. The function of the style guide is to draw your attention to these matters of style, so whenever you are about to use one of the constructions mentioned, you can consider both what you wrote and the alternative, and pick whatever sounds better. (So hypothetically, even a book that inverted all the rules would still be quite useful, since it would draw attention to the same matters.) Accordingly, Strunk and White freely violate their advice whenever an alternative is better, as all good writers do, and as the reader is expected to do. Instead of seeing them as setting an example, Pullum calls the authors "hypocritical" for "flaunting the fact that the rules don't apply to them".

[More generally, his unjustified annoyance with the book seems to arise from his rabid intolerance for anyone stating a "rule" based on their preference unless it's already a rule of grammar... in which case they wouldn't need to state the rule at all, would they? :-) Elsewhere, he has written another rant on George Orwell's famous essay Politics and the English Language, again over-obsessing on just one of Orwell's rules, his one against clichés: "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print." He needlessly points out the obvious fact that this is often infeasible and that Orwell violated his rule, and calls the essay "dishonest and stupid".]

"Limp platitudes" and vacuous advice?

The majority of the book, and certainly the most memorable part, deals with those vague little things that make up "style": "Use definite, specific, concrete language", "Omit needless words", "Keep related words together", "Do not overstate", and, most ineffable of all, "Be clear". These are all followed by little explanations that are generally good, but ultimately, you just have to keep the principles in mind. These "limp platitudes" (so called by Pullum) have in fact been the most useful parts of the book to most writers; even one of the writers allegedly criticizing the book (though I'll note that besides Pullum they all say it's a useful book, just misapplied and overrated) says:

Any young person prone to getting tattoos might consider having a few of these permanently engraved where they can readily be seen: Omit needless words. Use concrete language. Be clear. Avoid fancy words. Revise and rewrite. Pure gold.

Now for a few specific points from Pullum's rant:

"Use the active voice"

Strunk & White advocate using the active voice. This obviously doesn't mean anything as silly as the idea that they want to rid the English language of the passive voice. The passive voice is often a better choice as S&W say themselves, but the point they make — that the active voice is generally more direct and vigorous, and that direct and vigorous writing is generally preferable — is true. In fact, if you look, their advice is quite qualified: here's a passage from Pullum's rant itself:

After this unpromising start, there is some fairly sensible style advice: The authors explicitly say they do not mean "that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice," which is "frequently convenient and sometimes necessary." They give good examples to show that the choice between active and passive may depend on the topic under discussion.

Indeed they do. Pullum then goes to falsely claim that they misidentify the passive voice three out of four times. But they do nothing of the sort; what they give are not examples of passive usage, but examples of how transitive verbs in the active voice can be used:

Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.

There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground. --> Dead leaves covered the ground.

The sound of the falls could still be heard. --> The sound of the falls still reached our ears.

The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired. --> Failing health compelled him to leave college.

It was not long before he was very sorry that he had said what he had. --> He soon repented his words.

Here, as they say, they are giving (good) examples of how active transitive verbs can make sentences more forceful (or Strunk's strangely preferred "forcible"). This has nothing to do with the grammatical categories of active and passive voice of course, but as this is not a grammar textbook, and as stylistically this is the same thing of making sentences more direct, this is the logical place to put it in this famously terse book. It should be obvious that they aren't giving four examples of converting a sentence from passive voice to active voice. (Why would you expect them to do such a thing? Is this a grammar textbook for children? It is obvious that they assume the reader knows what the active and passive voice are; it probably never occurred to Strunk that someone who does not know may read his "little book".) The structure of the section is clear: first they say why the active voice is often preferable, then they show when it is not, then they move on to other related matters. They wouldn't have returned to harp on the first point again.

"None of us", "that-which"

Pullum claims that the authors claim that "None of us are perfect" is a grammar mistake. Of course, since S&W is not a grammar book and its authors do not claim that anything in the book is a grammatical mistake, Pullum's claim is trivially false. (Indeed their only pronouncements explicitly on grammar seem to be to say that something is grammatical: they say of "A group of us taxpayers protested" that "The wording, although grammatically defensible, is rarely apt", and elsewhere, "There is nothing wrong with the grammar...") But I'll go further and note this on their section about "none":

A plural verb is commonly used when none suggests more than one thing or person.

 None are so fallible as those who are sure they're right.

(This is kind of tautologous anyway; none suggests a plural when used with "are".)

Similarly, of "which" and "that" — a tiny note in a section on misused words — what they say is (bolding mine):

The use of which for that is common in written and spoken language ("Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass."). Occasionally which seems preferable to that, as in the sentence from the Bible. But it would be a convenience to all if these two pronouns were used with precision.

So you see they're expressing a view (idiosyncratic, if you like) not on right and wrong, but on what would be "convenient to all" because of "precision" (a dream of keeping words separate, against the tide of usage). Showing, as Pullum does, that "which" is common for restrictive clauses in written and spoken language only reiterates what they already said. (The breed of anti-prescriptivist linguists from which Pullum comes seems to hold that no one ought to express a preference about language, just accept established usage.)


Admittedly, parts of the book are outdated — some of what sounded better in 1918 sounds worse in 2010, and the book hasn't completely caught up. Ideally, another book dispensing the kind of style advice for which S&W is noted would take its place, providing the kind of advice on composition that goes beyond mere grammar or Chicago Manual of Style advice — but none of S&W's critics appear to have made recommendations (that I'm aware of); the book is still useful. Now, there is a lot of valid criticism to be made about the book being handed out with "follow these [blindly]", its tips being treated as inviolable rules, producing "nervous cluelessness" in students about grammar, about Microsoft Word highlighting every use of the passive voice or restrictive which as a grammar mistake, and so on. Apparently, in the United States, this quirky little book has become "the primary vehicle through which grammar was taught to college students and presented to the general public". While I recoil in horror at such lunacy (if such a thing is indeed true), all of these seem failures of the education system to me. Blaming such misuse on the book itself, and calling its authors an assortment of names ("bumblers", "incompetents", etc.) is just mean-spirited.

share|improve this answer
It should also be noted that S&W is not directed at professional writers and authors who earn a living crafting language. Those at that level of skill have internalized style and syntax and require little correction. Rather, Strunk and White aim at the high school student and the college freshman. In my own editorial work, some 80 percent or so of what I do is deleting needless words. The ideas are there, but usually buried beneath unnecessary qualifiers and weasel words. – The Raven Feb 27 '11 at 20:53
@TheRaven Interesting that you spend so much time deleting needless words. In my schooling, about 80% or so of my editorial work was adding superfluous wording to meet ridiculous word-count requirements. – jdstankosky Dec 21 '12 at 15:37
When it comes to modern style, On Writing Well by William Zinsser is good and well-regarded. Additionally, books like Garner's Modern American Usage by Bryan Garner guides writers on the use of specific words and terms (with some commentary on punctuation and style). Finally, the "writing style" tag on this Stack Exchange has some good advice. – A Brooks Aug 8 '13 at 21:30

I apologize if this is more a commentary than an answer to the original question; there is not room in the comments. I'll be neither surprised or offended if I get negative votes.

We've been told that The Elements of Style has been “Roundly criticized by academic linguists” (plural), and that much of its content is “flat-out wrong or totally misleading”, but not one example has been given, and the only reference presented so far is the essay by Mr. Pullum. That reference demands a response, and since the actual students of language here have not chimed in, I feel I must say something.

I have only a Third Edition of The Elements of Style. I do not have easy access to the original and other versions as Mr. Pullum does. I majored in sciences, not English, and have no training in grammar beyond high school many decades ago.

While I am not qualified to enumerate the grammatical errors in The Elements of Style, it appears to me that the criticisms are overblown, given that the operative word in the title is “Style”, not “Grammar”. When this small book for students in need of writing guidance was published there apparently was no similarly concise grammar reference. Guidelines of essential grammar were therefor included, but make up only the first brief chapter out of five – about 1/6th of the total pages in the book.

Since the mid 1980s there has been an Elements of Grammar. For advice on style, The Elements of Style is useful. For rules of Grammar The Elements of Grammar might be more appropriate.

Although not qualified as an expert judge of the grammatical advice in The Elements of Style, I do feel qualified to analyze Mr. Pullum's essay.

Pullum's stated thesis appears to be that a) Strunk and White don't understand grammar and b) their advice on using it is incorrect. He then proceeds to criticize the book's advice on style, rather than grammar, and towards the end of his piece criticizes the book for not following its (supposedly incorrect) advice.

Many of Mr. Pullum's criticisms fail when taken in context.

  • "Do not inject opinion" he calls silly. “Reminder 17” spells out very clearly and by concrete example that it is gratuitous opinion that S&W are warning against. For more than one reason he might be advised to re-read this paragraph carefully.

  • The advice to "Be clear" Pullum calls “vapid”. In his case this is true, since he says no more. S&W, on the other hand, spend an entire page describing both the importance of clarity and ways in which one might fail to achieve clarity, with helpful suggestions for the beginning writer.

  • "Omit needless words." Then, says Pullum, “The students who know which words are needless don't need the instruction.” I'm grateful not to have an unhelpful professor like Pullum who presumes that I already know as much as he does. For the rest of us, S&W continue with a page and a half of specific examples of typical excess verbage. These are close relatives of what George Orwell described as “less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse. ” (“Politics and the English Language”

  • "Do not explain too much" In his previous complaint, Mr. Pullum did not explain too much, or even enough. Neither, apparently, did he read enough. For those troubling to read more of “Reminder 11” than simply its heading, S&W make it crystal clear that they are warning specifically against excessive use of adverbs, a lá Tom Swift. Considering that Strunk's little book was contemporaneous with Swift's popularity, that this was a concern should be no surprise, but the advice is as valid as ever.

Pullum devotes four paragraphs to discussing the stylistic implications of using the passive voice, then finally gives three examples of an incorrect identification of the passive voice. These are the only mention of actual errors in grammar I find in his complaint against S&W.

He says that “writing tutors” ignore S&W's balancing moderation, then blames S&W rather than those tutors. Then, after raving for four paragraphs, he lets us know he's not really concerned about that. Perhaps he could have spared us.

He cites the works of authors who were both popular in the days of Strunk and who remain esteemed today, to show that S&W “base their grammar claims on intuition and prejudice rather than established literary usage”.

This point is worth considering, but if “literary usage” is indeed the final arbitrator, perhaps we don't need The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Geoffrey K. 'no axe to grind' Pullum, 2002) any more than we need The Elements of Style. The Elements of Style at least notes that “language is perpetually in flux” and (in my 1979 edition) “by the time this paragraph sees print, uptight, ripoff, rap, dude, vibes, copout, and funky will be the words of yesteryear”. (Hey, Dude, they got a few of 'em right!)

We novices are well advised to pay close attention to established usage to avoid jarring the reader and distracting from our message. Those writers whose work is still popular after a century did not achieve their greatness by slavish attention to “the rules of grammar” - the servant rather than the overseer of effective communication.

After further fault finding with S&W's advice on style (still not grammar), and for the book's failing to follow its own advice, Pullum then says “The book's contempt for its own grammatical dictates seems almost willful” but “I'm not nitpicking the authors' writing style”.

I believe the spirit of S&W is contained in the masterfully subtle “Reminder 8”:

8.Avoid the use of qualifiers.

Rather, very, little, pretty – these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words. The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one and we are all pretty sure to violate it now and then.

Mr. Pullum would do well to read this carefully, (if not very carefully, at least pretty carefully), loosen up a bit, and perhaps learn a lesson important for any writer: don't take yourself too seriously.

Personally, I find the useful advice on how to improve my writing in The Elements of Style to far outweigh whatever flaws it may contain in strict formalistic grammar.

Mr. Pullum repeatedly states that it is not the style but the grammatical advice with which he finds fault, then continues to devote most of his essay to criticisms of style, rather than grammar. He deliberately or through laziness excludes the context which would show those criticisms to be invalid. He notes the failure of readers to heed S&W's own counterpoints to their suggestions, then blames this “damage” on S&W. Finally, after mentioning his scholarly life, he can't refrain from referring to S&W, deceased and unable to respond, as “bumblers” and their rules “misbegotten”.

While The Elements of Style undoubtedly has flaws, now that I've seen an example of Mr. Pullum's work I'm not inclined to look to him as an alternative.

share|improve this answer
Thanks for saving me from reading Pullum. – moioci Sep 18 '10 at 6:59
Hi @mickeyf - That's an incredible writeup, thank you. I think I learned far more from you than anything Pullum mentioned. I didn't come here with a goal to discredit Pullum's criticism but I'm definitely now leaning in that direction. – MikeSchinkel Sep 18 '10 at 14:08
I find this answer to be misleading and not really an answer to the original question. By my reading, well over half the essay addresses the specific errors Elements makes regarding English syntax, as I summarized in my answer. Think what you will about Elements ’ advice on style, the advice on grammar is quite often objectively incorrect, and that’s what the original questioner was asking about. – nohat Sep 18 '10 at 17:53
As a response to the objection towards the top of this answer that only Mr. Pullum has criticized Elements, there is, at least, this collection of guest blog posts at the New York Times all of which are at least somewhat critical of the book. – nohat Sep 18 '10 at 18:08
@mickeyf, if you are arguing that this book should never be used as a reference for any questions of grammar, then I agree with you! But, if this is so obvious, then why do people seem to be mistakenly citing it as a reference for grammar? I can tell you why: Section II talks about things you must do, otherwise you are wrong ("wrong" in terms of following the standard), but Section III is all things that the author just thinks you should do, and yet the tone is just as absolute and one-sided as Section II. That is why the book does more harm than good. – Kosmonaut Sep 18 '10 at 22:02

In the spirit of answering the original question the way he wanted it to be answered, I will summarize the grammar points of Pullum’s essay:

Passive voice

Elements strongly advises against the passive voice. Pullum has two objections to this: (1) in many cases the passive voice really is superior to the active voice and so a general rule to err on the side of the active voice is ill-advised and (2) Elements (shockingly, in my opinion) misidentifies the passive voice in several example sentences, leading generations of people to be unable to correctly identify the passive voice. What he really objects to, though, is the fact that many writing tutors and teachers ignore the moderation they add that “that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice” which is “frequently convenient and sometimes necessary”, and simply put wholesale bans on the passive voice.

Split infinitives

Elements says split infinitives “should be avoided unless the writer wishes to place unusual stress on the adverb”. Pullum objects to this because there is no reason to avoid splitting infinitives, and furthermore, putting adverbs between to and the verb actually de-emphasizes the adverb. So the advice is bad and the exception is incorrect.

Verb agreement with none

Elements says “With none, use the singular verb when the word means ‘no one’ or ‘not one’”. Pullum then gives several examples of how none often takes a plural verb from significant literary works contemporaneous with the publication of Elements. The claim that none with a plural verb is ungrammatical is flat-out wrong.


Elements says a sentence should not begin with however in its connective adverb sense (“when the meaning is ‘nevertheless’”), but this restriction is simply invented, and Pullum says “good authors alternate between placing the adverb first and placing it after the subject” and “The evidence cannot possibly support a claim that however at the beginning of a sentence should be eschewed. Strunk and White are just wrong about the facts of English syntax.”

Relative clause subordinators which and that

Elements says that restrictive relative clauses must never be introduced with which, which Pullum objects to: “There was never a period in the history of English when which at the beginning of a restrictive relative clause was an error”.

Pullum concludes with the idea that Elements’ popularity has led to “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”, and that the syntactic wrongness and lack of evidence-based advice makes it an “overopinionated and underinformed little book that put so many people in this unhappy state of grammatical angst.”

share|improve this answer
Perhaps the worst part of Elements is the way each section is titled and its overall tone. For example, the section on passive voice is not called "Discussion of Active and Passive Voice", it is called "Use Active Voice". They then spend most of the section arguing (poorly) that passive voice is inherently inferior to the active voice. But, at the very end of the section, they backtrack and say that sometimes the passive is better than the active. It's no wonder that people got the idea that these rules were absolute — if you skim the book, that is exactly how it appears! – Kosmonaut Sep 18 '10 at 21:56
This answer propagates even more falsehoods about the book than Pullum's essay, by intensifying things he says. Really, I must wonder if Pullum and his followers have actually read the book recently, or are simply reacting to how others use the book. – ShreevatsaR Sep 19 '10 at 11:00
To substantiate my previous comment (won't fit there): Your claims that the book "strongly advises against the passive voice" (all it says is "The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive"), that it misidentifies the passive voice (see my answer), that it says "a sentence should not begin with however " (all it says is "avoid… the word usually serves better when not in first position") and that it says "restrictive relative clauses must never be introduced with which" are all false. – ShreevatsaR Sep 19 '10 at 11:02
@Kosmonaut: If you were writing a booklet of advice for your students (as opposed to a scholarly work), would you really title your sections "Discussion of active voice", "Discussion of clarity", "Discussion of brevity", "Discussion of naturalness", "Discussion of revising" etc.? :-) Almost every advice has its limits, but you still have to say something in the title. Strunk says "Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, non-committal language." :D – ShreevatsaR Sep 19 '10 at 17:28
@Kosmonaut: You seem to be reading an entirely different book! In this book, in the section called "Use the active voice" (which you've thrice called "Use Passive Voice" by mistake), they don't "admit" that the passive voice is useful at the end, but immediately after their first example. Then they move on to other things. It is also false that they misidentify the passive voice. The only two examples they give of the passive voice as such ("My first visit…", "The dramatists…") are indeed passive. And blaming a book for others' abuse? – ShreevatsaR Jan 3 '11 at 11:59

I do not have much to add here that has not already been stated besides another link in the vein of Ex-user's contribution.

The Land of the Free and the Elements of Style

On that page, number 240 is the article. It seems to be a slightly more comprehensive argument than the one previously linked.

Based on my observation of the dialogue concerning Elements of Style and its criticism:

I think that Pullum may in fact, as Shreevatsa has suggested, be a bit too critical of Elements, but I think that he has a valid reason for his anger, even if his response may be a bit disproportionate. Elements should not be taught as an authority on grammar in college. Pullum is against people misinterpreting Elements and using it as a grammar guide as opposed to a style guide, and I am sure this can happen all to easily. Elements is a style guide, not a grammar guide, and it is because of the tendency to use it as a grammar guide that Pullum dislikes it.

Pullum understands that Elements is a style guide and he draws issue with the people who use it as a grammar guide, which I think some of his detractors fail to realize.

share|improve this answer
+1 for the link Pullum’s excellent article which addresses the problems with Elements much more in depth than his editorial in the Chronicle does – nohat Jan 3 '11 at 4:50
+1Thanks for the link; it's certainly more careful than the rant. But it seems to confirm my feeling that Pullum is off his rocker when it comes to this book. :-) Of course, my opinion is likely to be different—as one who hasn't encountered this book in the context of English education in America but only thinks of as a quaint book not to be taken too seriously (by its very nature). Everything he says about grammar is right, but most of the opinions he attributes to the book aren't in it. It is absurd to treat it as an authority, but he's blaming the failures of the education system on a book. – ShreevatsaR Jan 3 '11 at 14:23
@ShreevatsaR: "It is absurd to treat it as an authority, but he's blaming the failures of the education system on a book." This failure of the educational system is the widespread use of this book as an authority. Now, how do you expect Pullum to effect change in this system other than attempting to make it well-known that the book is flawed, in an attempt to convince teachers and schools not to use it? – Kosmonaut Jan 3 '11 at 16:27
@Kosmonaut: I approve of Pullum's noble and crucial work in pointing out that the book is terrible as a grammar guide. (It's tragic that such obvious things need pointing out… but I guess the real world is what it is.) All 11 pages of the above article were great, and they confirmed much of what I thought about English usage. What I don't like is his endless barrage of personal attacks on the authors, calling them liars, hypocrites, etc., and the idea that attempting to foist your strange little choices on the world is a grave sin. I'm not even fond of the book, but I think it's not sinful. :p – ShreevatsaR Jan 3 '11 at 20:28
The Elements should be read by anyone interested in writing well. Strunk and White have good advice. In addition, aspiring writers should read the Chicago Manual, and Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, and Mencken's The American Language, and a whole bunch of other things. Talking about S&W in isolation is not productive. If nothing else, their credo - "omit needless words" - is the single takeaway a reader need garner from them. – The Raven Feb 27 '11 at 21:02

Full disclosure up front:

  1. Prior to my registering on this site, my knowledge about S&W was limited to being vaguely familiar with the sequence of characters, "Strunk & White" — and even that only thanks to the StackExchange badge of the same name.

  2. I don't feel like buying any book for the sole purpose of discussing it here — or on any SE site, for that matter.

With that out of the way, here are my two cents.

This whole discussion boils down to one simple question: Which references should we be using to back up advice provided on this site? To me, the answer is startlingly obvious: there are numerous resources that are considered authoritative by both sides of the debate at hand. Whether or not a particular user agrees with S&W, they certainly won't mind if we instead refer to The Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam-Webster, The Oxford English Dictionary, or The Corpus of Contemporary American English, to name but a few.

Really, this question belongs on meta. It should be noted that the original comment quoted by the OP in his very first sentence is from meta. This follow-up question should be migrated there.

share|improve this answer
And I have close-voted accordingly: "belongs on meta". – RegDwigнt Sep 18 '10 at 4:42
Strunk and White is not a reference, nor is it authoritative. It's a bunch of idiosyncratic opinions of the authors, and is a rather good and entertaining book, with much sound advice. It's not at all comparable to dictionaries or a corpus or even to the Chicago Manual of Style. – ShreevatsaR Sep 18 '10 at 5:59
@RegDwight: I respectfully disagree that this belongs on meta. As a moderator on SE's WordPress Answers I'm aware of meta and meta questions should be about the operation of the SE site, not about it's subject. This question is about the subject of the SE site, i.e. English and how S&W's advice is "wrong" (or as it turns out by at least one opinion given, not.) Your answer attempts to turn it my question into a meta which was not at all the reason I asked. I wanted to learn what to disregard in S&W, not get involved in the governance of this site. – MikeSchinkel Sep 18 '10 at 14:14
Hi @ShreevatsaR: Why not post your opinion as an answer rather than as a comment on @RegDwight's answer? – MikeSchinkel Sep 18 '10 at 14:15
@ShreevatsaR: I don't think that it's a bad question. I am merely saying that this site is not a book discussion club. True, S&W is all about English Language and Usage, but so are countless other books, and it's a slippery slope. If asking for a list of errors in S&W is on-topic, then so is asking for a list of typos in the OED, and then so is asking for a list of typos in Through the Looking-Glass, or any book, for that matter. We have to draw the line somewhere. And I'm not insisting that we draw it right here, right now, pronto; I am just putting in my two pennies worth. – RegDwigнt Sep 20 '10 at 15:45

I first read about The Elements of Style in in Stephen King's On Writing, and later in William Zinsser's On Writing Well. Intrigued, I purchased a copy and read it through; more than once.

King, having sold more than 350 million copies of his 50-something novels, could not speak more highly of Strunk and White's little book:

This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. […] One notable exception to the bullshit rule is The Elements of Style […]. I'll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style. (Second foreword.)

Verbs come in two types, active and passive. […] You should avoid the passive tense. I'm not the only one who says so; you can find the same advice in The Elements of Style. (Page 136.)

In his bestseller, On Writing Well, Zinsser concurs:

[…] The Elements of Style, a book every writer should read once a year […]. E.B White is one of my favourite stylists because I'm conscious of being a man who cares about the cadence and sonorities of the language. (Page 35.)

I enjoyed The Elements of Style, because English is not my native language and I had many lingering questions that were answered. The book was useful; I'm happy. Next book, please.

Whether The Elements of Style is grammatically correct or not, doesn't make much of a practical difference to most coarse persons like myself. We would benefit from the book, regardless.

Hence, the book is not misinformed, hypocritical, misleading or wrong; it's just subject to opinion. The answer to this question will vary depending on who you ask and how they feel.

Read it, learn from it what you can, forget your dislikes, and keep writing. If it was good enough for Stephen and William, then it's good enough for me. At least to get me started.

share|improve this answer

This article "50 years of stupid grammar advice" is one recent example.

share|improve this answer
Hi @Shinto Sherlock: Thanks for the link. I should have mentioned it as I already read the article because it was linked on the answer by a quoted users but I felt it was more the ranting of a pedant than a concise list of where they were wrong. What I was looking for was specific chapters and verse where they were wrong and why in each case. Ironic that Professor Pullum denigrated S&W's advice of "Do not explain too much" as tautological yet in my opinion he brutally violated the admonition against tautology himself. Or as has come to be known in more recent vernacular; TL;DR. :) – MikeSchinkel Sep 12 '10 at 0:09

protected by RegDwigнt Apr 6 '12 at 20:21

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.