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Dracula, Strunk, and Correct English Usage

strunkpic-dracula

Do not place your trust in either of these men.

On May 26, 1897, exactly 120 years ago, Bram Stoker published his dark and gruesome epistolary Gothic novel Dracula. Its fearsome central character, despite his few appearances, has had more impact on the popular imagination, and appeared in more movies, than any fictional character apart from Sherlock Holmes.

On my laptop I keep a small library of late 19th-century and early 20th-century novels (downloaded from gutenberg.org), Dracula being one. I use them in testing claims about English grammar. When I see some century-old handbook or school text claiming that such-and-such construction is an error, I check to see whether the alleged erroneous usage turns up in classic Victorian-era novels.

In 1890, when Stoker was an experienced theater manager and had already published his first novel, a young man named William Strunk Jr. was completing his bachelor’s degree in mathematics at the University of Cincinnati. Strunk later completed a Ph.D. in English at Cornell, the year before Dracula appeared. Within a couple of decades Strunk was a full professor of English, and decided to privately publish a little book called The Elements of Style (1918). Naturally I was curious about whether Strunk’s edicts about writing, still widely peddled on American college campuses, find support from the language of Stoker’s masterpiece. Let me briefly report on four small investigations.

1. Strunk asserts that however when it means “nevertheless” should never begin a sentence. But 18 percent of the 102 instances of however in Dracula start their sentences.

2. Strunk claims “A conditional statement in the first person requires should, not would.” But cases of I would make up nearly 60 percent of the cases where I  is followed by would or should. These early examples (from the diary of John Seward, an educated doctor in the novel) are typical:

I had some work to do which pressed, so I told him that if he would go alone I would be glad, as then I should not have to keep him waiting…

Ordinarily I would not have come without special reason, but just at present I am so interested in him that I would gladly make an effort.

3. Strunk insists on another point that evidence from English literature clearly fails to settle (as noted in this earlier post):

Whom. Often incorrectly used for who before he said or similar expressions, when it is really the subject of a following verb.

Strunk wants you to ignore the testimony of Shakespeare’s King John (1597), Timon of Athens (1608), All’s Well That Ends Well (1603), Measure for Measure (1605), and The Tempest (1612), all of which use whom in the way that Strunk says is incorrect (e.g., Arthur, whom they say is kill’d tonight on your suggestion, from King John). He wants you to use who instead. Stoker, by contrast, follows Shakespeare’s rule, at least when representing the language of Lucy Westenra’s letters:

Being proposed to is all very nice and all that sort of thing, but it isn’t at all a happy thing when you have to see a poor fellow, whom you know loves you honestly, going away and looking all broken hearted…

4. Strunk condemns as a “common inaccuracy” the use of they with singular antecedents like everybody or anyone. But Stoker has Renfield saying:

No one would refuse me a kitten, would they?

(I grant you Renfield is a lunatic. But the evidence of Dr. Seward’s diary suggests that he is a lunatic who speaks impeccable standard English.)

I could go on, but you can see where I’m headed. Strunk’s rules appear to be as fictional as Count Dracula.

Stoker certainly cannot be charged with being illiterate or uneducated. After attending a private school, he majored (like Strunk) in mathematics, earning a B.A. at an elite protestant institution, Trinity College Dublin. He was active in two celebrated academic societies there, the History Club and the Philosophical Club, becoming the president of the latter. (That presidency had earlier been held by Edward Dowden, who became a distinguished Shakespeare scholar and one of Stoker’s professors.) After graduation, Stoker served as theater critic for the Dublin Evening Mail, and was noted for his excellent writing. Later he served on the literary staff of The Daily Telegraph. He published dozens of stories and a slew of novels. Dracula in particular earned much critical acclaim, despite not being an instant best-seller (today a good copy of the rather scarce first edition will set you back $10,000 to $30,000).

No, Strunk could hardly call Stoker a grammatical ignoramus. The fact is that Strunk simply doesn’t bother to look for literary evidence to support his prejudices. His pronouncements about “inaccuracy” and “misuse” are personal peeves with no basis in either classic literature like Shakespeare or fine novels of his own time.


Bibliographical credit: My source for some of the information in this post was Barbara Belford’s Bram Stoker: A Biography of the Author of Dracula (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).

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