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Crisis Management and Proper Usage

E.B. White

I learned something frightening yesterday. Just by chance, really. I happened to discover that in the syllabus for a course on crisis management at a noted law school (a sound and well-organized course as far as I could judge) students are informed that 60 percent of their grade will be based on a case study, and “because proper English usage is essential to effective communication, a portion of the final grade will be based upon compliance with the principles outlined in The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White.”

Part of the grade in a professional-school course is being determined by “compliance” with the misguided edicts in an overrated little book of bad advice originating as a required text prescribed for students of English at Cornell nearly 100 years ago! It’s chilling.

The currently standard edition of The Elements of Style (fourth edition, paperback, Allyn & Bacon, Boston, 2000) derives from E.B. White’s 1959 revision and expansion of Strunk’s privately printed 1918 original. White rectified hardly any of the book’s faults, but added a fifth chapter, plus plenty of other extra stupidness, like the appallingly undisciplined paragraph on modal-adjunct uses of hopefully (Page 48).

It is White’s own opinion that up to the end of the fourth chapter, originally due to Strunk, the book is not primarily about style, despite its title. It is “concerned with what is correct, or acceptable, in the use of English” (Page 66). White’s Chapter 5 concentrates on style, and what it says seems to me to range from the vapid (“Be clear”) to the ridiculous (“Do not inject opinion”). But what concerns me most is that most of what the book says about correctness and acceptability is untrue.

Let me illustrate just how bad the advice is. Following the book’s “principles” strictly would mean rejecting all of the 10 sentences below. They are all linguistically flawless, or at the very least (allowing for random stylistic nitpicking) properly and unremarkably constructed; but each of them violates at least one S&W edict. For each example I give a page reference to the fourth edition where you can see at least one injunction with which the sentence conflicts.

  1. None of the demonstrators were interested in negotiating. (Page 10)
  2. In the fall new recycling bins were distributed to all city residents. (Page 18)
  3. This is not what most people believe. (Page 19)
  4. It is hard to believe that this has not already been done. (Page 23)
  5. Residents can use the procedure or not, as they wish. (Page 42)
  6. However, what happened the following year was even more surprising. (Page 48)
  7. President Roosevelt called the day of the Pearl Harbor attack a date which will live in infamy. (Page 59)
  8. No one should imagine that they can simply ignore this regulation. (Page 60)
  9. A once peaceful neighbourhood was suddenly disrupted by civil disorder. (Page 71)
  10. The crisis plan that the committee looked at was vague and confused. (Pages 77-78)

Now, I worry that oppressed students might draw the conclusion that in the light of all this they should set to work ridding their work of anything reminiscent of the sentences above without knowing why (the nervous cluelessness reaction, as I have called it); so let me stress again that the usage “principles” Strunk and White propose are mistaken. They do not define “proper English usage,” and obeying them would not make your writing better or improve “effective communication.”

Nobody who is fluent in Standard English, and not in a state of panic, could seriously believe that there is anything linguistically incorrect about the sentences listed above (though in some contexts you might choose to modify their style). But people get cowed into thinking such things when they wrongly assume that The Elements of Style is holy writ.

The instructor who wrote that syllabus might want to acquaint himself with some more modern and useful works on writing and style; I would suggest first and foremost Steven Pinker’s book The Sense of Style (Viking, 2014).

A brief survey of what’s wrong with Strunk and White can be found in my Chronicle of Higher Education article from 2009. For a more thorough review of Strunk and White’s crimes, read this paper (English Today 102, 34-44, 2010).

And if you happen to be a student who got dinged for usage on your case study at the university in question, I will be pleased to consider testifying in your favor should you decide to take legal action over your grade.

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