Thoughts on The Elements of Style (but not really)

So when I saw The Elements of Style on the list of most popular writing books, I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to have anything in it about research since it’s more of a reference book about punctuation and grammar but I decided to be a completist and include it in my study anyway. I was right that there wasn’t really anything about research, but I’m glad I read it mostly because almost every other book on this list either makes mention of it or actively recommends it.

When it comes to books about grammar and punctuation, I’m more of an Eats, Shoots and Leaves person than a Strunk & White person (as The Elements of Style seems to be more commonly known), so some of my thoughts on The Elements of Style are mixed up with more general thoughts about this topic and ES&L specifically.

The Broken Hearts Club

There’s a scene early on in the movie The Broken Hearts Club where Timothy Olyphant’s character, Dennis, throws a birthday party for himself. As his friends arrive, they each hand him their present. It turns out, all of them have gotten him the same thing: a book called Love, Here I Am. Basically, they all think it’s time for him to stop sleeping around and find someone to settle down with.

There was a time in my life when the same thing happened with me and the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves. I had three copies of this book on my shelf, all gifts from friends who gave it to me not because they thought I necessarily needed help with grammar and punctuation but because they had heard me at one time or another rant about misspellings or misplaced punctuation I had spotted in various places. This book is very much meant for that kind of person. The author, Lynne Truss, calls people like me “sensitive sticklers.”

I don’t actively rant about this stuff anymore but I do notice it and I’m still known as the kind of person who notices it. (Just this past Christmas, a family member gave me one of those little signs you can hang in your office at work that reads “I’m silently correcting your grammar, see the above image.”) This makes it kind of surprising that I was only peripherally aware of The Elements of Style before I read it for this project but also not really because, well, it turns out I’m something of a fraud when it comes to grammar and spelling.

Which brings me to another movie-related anecdote.


Good Will Hunting

In Good Will Hunting, Minnie Driver’s character at one point asks Will (played by Matt Damon) how he’s able to so easily learn math that’s very difficult for her. To help her understand, he tells her a story about how, as an amateur pianist, when he looks at a piano, all he sees is a bunch of keys but when Mozart looked at a piano, he could just play. To his girlfriend he explains that when it come to math, “I guess I could always just play.”

As a former writing tutor (up until a month ago!), my dirty little secret has always been that while I’m pretty good at following the rules of grammar and punctuation (?), books like The Elements of Style are basically gibberish to me. In the parlance of Good Will Hunting, when it comes to this stuff, I could always just play, though not always well.

Case in point: During the publication process for one of my first peer-reviewed articles, I received feedback from one of the editors about my rampant use of overly long sentences written in the passive voice. The editor highlighted one example and showed me how to fix it. My job was then to find all of the other examples in the article and fix them.

I tried. I really did. But even if I’d had a copy of Strunk & White, which includes a very nice, succinct explanation of the passive voice, I doubt I would have been all that successful. In the end, the article was published instead with an excessive number of semicolons, likely placed there by a helpful and well-meaning (if no doubt annoyed) editor trying to fix the fixes I had tried to make. Which, considering how much I hate semicolons, is probably a fitting punishment.


But seriously

All of these are just general thoughts to give some context to my overall feelings about The Elements of Style. I can’t say much about the book itself because, as I said, it’s more of a reference book than a text that you read straight through and also my grasp of the content is weak at best. One thing I did appreciate about the edition that I read (the fourth edition) was that in his introduction, White explained that he had made some edits to the examples for each rule to make the book more balanced in terms of gender.

I especially admire that White took this step because another book on the list, Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, relies heavily on the generic “he” when referring to writers while favoring the generic “she” for stereotypical female roles such as muses, teachers, and librarians. Obviously, Bradbury’s essays are a product of their time and I’m not suggesting that someone should go in and make changes. But as a female reader it did grate on me after a while and led me to appreciate what White did all the more.


The toolbox of writing

In On Writing, Stephen King talks about The Elements of Style extensively and seems to feel strongly that you need to know the basics of grammar and punctuation before you really start to write. This seems to be a common view, based on how often chapters about this stuff come before chapters about, for example, plot structure in books about writing.

With all due respect, I disagree.

I make this comparison a lot but to me this advice is akin to telling someone that they need to learn to read music before they can play a musical instrument. This is certainly one effective method for learning, especially if you’re a student playing the trombone in your high school band. I just feel like there’s something to be said about just picking the thing up and noodling around and seeing what happens. Worry about the mechanics later.

Except, yeah. Mechanics are important because without those, your writing won’t make much sense. So maybe there’s a way to split the difference.

In the end

I mentioned before that, as a sensitive stickler, I used to be very vocal. I’m not anymore. Well, not as much. In part, this is mostly because I realized I was inadvertently shaming people. Mostly, though, I decided that in most cases what matters is not whether the person who wrote the e-mail or created the sign follows The Rules but whether I, as the reader, can understand what they meant. Correct spelling and grammar help with this, but they are not the be all and end all in every situation. (Writing intended for publication and mass consumption being the exception but even then there are talented writers who break the rules in interesting ways, something they could admittedly only do if they knew the rules in the first place.)

Needless to say, Strunk and I would not get along. White seemed a little more flexible, though.








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