Wednesday, July 31, 2013

When Strunk & White 'Strunk' Out

The seminal and ubiquitous style handbook 'The Elements of Style' by Strunk & White (often referred to simply as 'Strunk & White') is an incredibly useful and worthwhile resource for anybody who wants to better their understanding of English or improve their ability to compose English sentences.

But it isn't the infallible word from on high it has been made into over the years. I would discourage an unthinking acceptance of all the advice inside the book, along with blind deference to any source of guidance on writing - no matter how authoritative. In fact, I suspect that the sheer tone of absolute authority commanded by this book has led more than one poor soul to take it as the indisputable word of the literary lords rather than a collection of good but oftentimes subjective advice given by two intelligent, knowledgeable human beings.

I will demonstrate with two examples. On the subject of simile and metaphor, Strunk and White have this to say:

"The simile is a common device and a useful one, but similes coming in rapid fire, one right on top of another, are more distracting than illuminating. Readers need time to catch their breath; they can't be expected to compare everything with something else, and no relief in sight."

Is this so? Are similes, when ballistically fired at a high rate of speed out of a gun barrel ('coming in rapid fire') to the point where they are stacked on the page like pancakes ('one on top of the other') more likely to distract than to cause one to light up, i.e. be 'illuminating?' Do readers literally 'need time to catch their breath' when reading them, as though they were at the twenty-five mile marker at a marathon?

I realize these are examples of metaphors, not similes, but it's not like I need to be as specific about the images as a surgeon does about his stitches. (See what I did there?)

All I'm trying to point out is that metaphorical and simile-based expressions are 'baked in' to our language. Things like 'I get what you're saying,' 'You made me feel like a horse doctor in there,' and 'We are sending you good thoughts' are all formed out of this way of thinking. In their attempt to suggest limiting use of this type of language, Strunk & White unthinkingly employed at least four metaphorical images in two sentences.

The second example is more widely celebrated. This truth was first brought to my attention in a lecture by the great linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. People who are interested in a deeper understanding of language and the mind could do much worse than read his books. I highly recommend them.

Anyway, one of the best things to remember in general when composing sentences is to generally avoid the passive voice unless you are using it intentionally for effect. If you do not understand what this effect would be, then definitely avoid it for now. The passive voice is, to my mind, best summed by by Stephen King in his example from his amazing work 'On Writing' as the kind of sentence that sounds like this: "My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shana was begun." The active voiced version of this sentence could be 'My romance with Shana began with our first kiss: I'll never forget it,' or even 'I'll never forget how my romance with Shana began with our first kiss.'

Avoidance of the passive voice is stressed in Strunk & White. They provide four examples of sentences in the passive voice, and then go on to list four re-written versions of the same sentences that are, quite clearly, improvements. The problem is that only one of the four sentences they provide as examples of the passive is a definitive example of such a sentence.

Here they are:
  1. There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.
  2. At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard.
  3. The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired.
  4. It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had.
Sentences that feature 'There is,' 'There are,' 'There was,' or 'There were' are examples of 'expletive sentences.' (Not that kind of expletive. For more information, check out what Grammar Girl has to say.) You could improve number three by saying 'because' instead of 'was,' but for this to truly be a passive construction, it would need to have an active form something like 'His health impaired him into leaving college,' which isn't grammatical.

This sentence is simply a weak use of the copula as a form of explanation. Same with number four - you could change it to 'became very sorry,' or 'felt very sorry,' but not 'In no time flat, what she had said sorried her,' or 'She rapidly sorried about what she had said.' Or similar gobbledeegook.

Passive voice is when the grammatical subject of the verb is the recipient, not the source, of the action of the verb. Saying 'The boy was sixteen,' is not a passive sentence. 'The boy was listed as sixteen in the ledger,' however, is. 'The ledger listed the boy as sixteen' would be an active form of that example.

I'm not arguing that I'm a better grammarian than these two. I'm most certainly not. I just want to stress the importance of looking to a variety of sources for guidance and instruction and not getting too bogged down with what any one person has to say on the subject of writing. Though it might be tempting to make one or two guidebooks your 'absolute gospel,' true dedication to the craft of writing will see you pouring through many, many instructional tomes on your quest for a well-rounded corpus of knowledge on the topic.

Enjoy your reading, and happy writing!


  1. Good points. When I wrote for newspapers I found that if a passive voice started out with a vivid word the editors' knees would fail to jerk and they'd leave it alone. Powerful words such as "blood" and "hysteria" could divert them from imposing their Strunk/White template.

    I suspect one reason for S/W's phobia for passive voice is its prevalence in the overly cautious writing of academics.

  2. While this is good advise in today's world based on the way we talk and read, I have to wonder if S/W ever read Lovecraft. I can imagine their heads simultaneously exploding. Sometimes it's fun to incorporate these taboos that 100 years ago were commonplace just to engage the reader's mind, knocking off the cobwebs, seeing if they're paying attention or just looking at spotches of ink on paper. I guess I'm a cruel writer that way! }:)

  3. I mine my writing for passive sentences but since I never learned any grammar at school it's like fishing with a wide mesh net. At least I now have a A4 sheet with four columns of over-used words to eliminate.

  4. Saw something on another blog regarding the passive voice, and how to recognize it; if you can add "by zombies" after the verb in a given sentence, and it still works/sounds right... it's probably passive.

    Beyond that, interesting and thought provoking, since I probably still need to sweep my own work for such mishaps.

  5. I hear faintly, behind my ear, back in the day it was forbidden ever to say "the reason was because" which seems to mean that there was a cause to having a reason and furthermore, the reason was __________