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Is Strunk Bunk? A Game-Changing New Development

ee203fbab8b806ac9ca7c0db834ab9d9 Several of my critics (one of them an editor here at The Chronicle, whom I can hardly ignore) have made a remarkable move in response to the argument of my recent post about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing. My thesis was that if Strunk’s pronouncements in The Elements of Style were a sound guide to fine writing, we should find Fitzgerald unconsciously complying with them in work such as his rightly celebrated novel The Great Gatsby (published when Strunk was in his prime). But in the much-admired last two pages of that novel, Fitzgerald did nothing of the kind. I take that to be support for a view I have held for some time (see this short article or this longer one), namely that Strunk is bunk.

My denialist critics now propose a game-changing weakening of their pro-Strunkian position. They hold that my findings about Fitzgerald’s prose have no consequences regarding Strunk’s little book, because Fitzgerald wrote literature. For example, a commenter signed mixalot writes:

I think Strunk [is] useful for business, bureaucratic, and technical writing. Literary fiction is exempt from the “rules.” Good writers have always written in new and creative ways. I just reread that last passage of Gatsby (thank you for that link) and was moved to tears once again. It transcends language. It’s lyrical. The rules don’t apply.

How naive of me. I thought the Strunkian edicts were supposed to apply to writing, not just to sub-literary or run-of-the-mill writing. And surely literature was exactly what Strunk’s students were being taught in the English department at Cornell, where in 1919 Strunk taught English 8 to a class that included E.B. White (who was later to create some very fine literature). Declaring Elements ineligible for application to clearly excellent writing like Gatsby strikes me as an unexpected gambit.

In fact it’s as surprising as if someone suggested that the basic canons of science (explicitness of theories; falsifiability of hypotheses; clarity about data and instrumentation; truthfulness about experimental outcomes; statistical testing to rule out chance; crediting prior literature) are not supposed to be applied to Nobel-quality science like Crick and Watson, but only routine, mediocre, unimportant science.

My task now, if I am to convince the writing tutors and usage advisers of the anglophone world that they should not be clinging fetishistically to a booklet of bland maxims and eccentric rules dating back to the First World War, is to show that even excellent business, bureaucratic, and technical writing does not follow Strunk’s rules.

But that will be difficult. You see why? I’ll need a collection of business, bureaucratic, and technical writing that is uncontroversially agreed by the denialists to be excellent. Prospero—the books, arts, and culture blogger at The Economist—recently charged a book (perhaps unfairly) with containing the worst business and financial writing ever; I need a sample acknowledged as belonging to the opposite end of the spectrum, and also some beautifully crafted business memos and official pronouncements, if there are such things.

And crucially, on pain of circularity, I need the judgments of excellence not to be based simply on the Strunkian maxims themselves. Otherwise an opponent of my thesis might initially like some piece of prose but then notice a few needless words, passive clauses, etc., and change their vote on those grounds alone, making their vindication of Strunk vacuous.

I’m sorry if it sounds like I don’t trust my critics, but there’s a reason: I don’t trust them.

And it’s frustrating to start out trying to refute the view that good writing tends to respect the Strunkian desiderata, and show successfully that even uncontroversially great literature from the 1920s didn’t respect them, and then see uncontroversially great literature suddenly ruled ineligible as evidence. (This must be what it’s like trying to run for election as a moderate in Iran.)

The new denialist position is that the Strunkian rules are still valid, but apply only to business, bureaucratic, and technical writing, where their function is to correct sins that in a work of literature wouldn’t need to be corrected at all. Does this seem rational to you?

I’ll have to have a serious think about how I deal with it. It’s a whole new wrestling match. And my opponents seem to have slathered on so much oil before climbing into the ring that I’m not sure standard holds are going to be able to get a grip on them.

Image courtesy of Borba Wrestling School.

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