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Djelloul Marbrook: Against Strunk and White

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White is a grammatical manifesto that has dominated American literature almost from the day of its Jazz Age publication in 1920.

Eugene Volokh in The Washington Post last April raised compelling questions about its impact, stirring up the predictable hornet’s nest.

What the New Testament was to my metaphysical development, The Elements of Style was to my career in journalism and my subsequent career as a novelist and poet. But in my old age I share some of Volokh’s misgivings and can offer, I believe, a few insights.

These insights have been inspired by my wife’s gift of a Hemingway ball cap to me on the occasion of my birthday. Would the ball cap suck the adverbs and adjectives out of my head in accordance with Strunk and White’s diktat, in honor of Hemingway’s own austere prose? Or had they already fled?

The gift of The Elements of Style lies in its insistence that adverbs, adjectives and all things Latinate enervate our Anglo-Saxon linguistic heritage. This ethnocentric rubric is defensible, for all its questionable homogeneity. Anyone who has considered Beowulf or Piers Plowman can appreciate the muscularity of the Anglo-Saxon verb. But whether The Elements of Style should enjoy its status as gospel is another matter. It may well be a case overdrawn, and in that case we ought to ask ourselves why it was so easily overdrawn. Here’s where I have a theory to offer.

Strunk and White’s masterpiece did not burst out of the heads of Olympian grammar gods. Rather it was part of an ongoing evolution of newspeak which today is manifesting itself in sound bites and tweets. Since the introduction of the telegraph, news media had been paring down the language, making it more aerodynamic, less wind-resistant, quicker, punchier. Jazz itself was an expression of this impulse to streamline. Pontification and ponderosity were placed on an index, an index that pre-dated The Elements of Style.

For example, the Associated Press, a media membership organization, had developed the pyramid style of news writing in which the most important news, the thing that was distinctly and unassailably new, appeared in the first paragraph and all subsequent paragraphs elaborated. Such stories could be cut from the bottom. To build this pyramid style excess language had to be stripped away.

The inevitable result of this telegraphic style, a style that operates like a zombie today, is the banishment of context and historicity, turning news into an endless string of incident reports without enough perspective to enlighten the reader. Another inevitable result of this phenomenon is to turn the 24-hour news report into a stress machine, heightening anxieties without shedding light on their causes or connectedness. The news then becomes a scattershot of unconnected dots. This, of course, conflicts with what we know about the butterfly effect. In fact, news as we construe it is a blanket denial of the butterfly effect.

There was a clear economic imperative to this deconstruction of Edwardian English. It cost money to transmit verbiage by telegraph. And any news space that was used for news was no longer available for revenue-generating advertising, so obviously a kind of stripped-down language that would get from one place to another quickly and smoothly was necessary. No fancy footwork. No dancing around.

The tabloid headline was a kind of apotheosis of this discipline, and it too preceded The Elements of Style by a long shot. The tabloid headline was, of course, the precursor of the sound bite and tweet.

So we can readily see that Strunk and White’s work, hailed as inspired innovation, was in fact an inspired summation of what was happening, in the Zeitgeist. It arrived at the right time and was quickly seized upon and institutionalized by a press that admired its own thinking, as it continues to do today.

Not only jazz and newspeak were flourishing in 1920: fascism, with all its ebullient pronouncements, edicts, fanfare, balcony brinksmanship and parades. There is a distinctly fascist odor about The Elements of Style. It brooks no exception, no deviation, no rebel thinking. Admittedly, it could be argued just as facilely that there is a communist odor to the work. In either case, it is intolerant, hectoring and lacking in moderation. George Orwell’s newspeak, the lingo of the totalitarian state, is inextricable from newsspeak, the lingo of Murdochian America, a kind of codified hatefulness.

The Elements of Style, like Donald Trump, is a creature of the press, and not the original, groundbreaking masterpiece it has been called, but rather a more doctrinaire apologia of something that was already happening. Its magic lies in its elegance and accessibility.

If that argument holds water, then it ought to be said that what was already happening needed a rationale, a way to savor its virtues.

The many handbooks produced by the great newspapers of the Jazz Age in Baltimore, Providence, New York, Saint Louis, Des Moines and elsewhere were making the case that a balanced report of the news required the absence of adjectives and adverbs They poisoned objectivity, it was said. And that handily raises the issue of omission. It’s no accident that the media in general, Strunk and White in particular, and fascism should all speak of purification, of getting rid of undesirable elements. A recognition of this should have long ago sent chills down our collective spine. But it didn’t, did it? And it’s still not warning us. Anytime someone claims to know what should be omitted, what should be exiled, what should expurgated, what should be deported, we should be on guard. But we aren’t, are we?

The media were arguing, like Strunk and White, that omitting adverbs and adjectives and highly nuanced Latinate phraseology produced a more reliable report, a more honest report, plain speaking, palpable integrity. But omission also produced bias, and still does. For example, no experienced journalist looks to The New York Times for honest, insightful reportage about Arabs. No experienced journalists looks to any of the major media for a sympathetic approach to unionism. No one should look to the media for honesty about the money trail, about who profits from war and legislation. All these elements, which would provide balance and inquiry, are routinely omitted, along with adverbs and adjectives.

So I like my Hemingway hat for shade, but for ordinances about writing, not so much. It reminds me of The Killers, naked and unforgettable language, but it does not persuade me that I must slave after Hemingway or Raymond Carver or William Carlos Williams. I know that omission is a two-edged sword, and honesty is not assured because you have jettisoned adverbs and adjectives. Indeed honesty may be part of the baggage jettisoned with them, as the press proves to us every day.


Copyright © 2015 Djelloul Marbrook

Home.color_.Dj in his new Hemingway hat

2 comments on “Djelloul Marbrook: Against Strunk and White

  1. marbrook
    August 29, 2015

    While I appreciate Mike’s views and share his description of how young writers must find their way, I think he makes impossible demands on a a small essay that strikes to focus on certain aspects of Elements of Style at the expense of a much larger whole. It’s in the very nature of journalism to do this, while histories seek to be more compendious. I’m quite aware as a career journalist of Elements’ many virtues. The point f my small essay is reconsider some of its more questionable aspects. As for yellow journalism, our nation was born in a period of yellow journalism, and Jefferson and Madison were among its most egregious users. Washington held it in disdain, as was his wont. This sort of Fleet Street journalism persisted in England and Rupert Murdoch has brought it back to our shores in spades. But in the 19th Century there arose in America a number of entrepreneurs like Joseph Pulitzers who sought a more responsible kind of journalism. The kind of impartiality and balance that the Pultizers and Binghams and Abells and other great newspaper-owning families sought to encourage could never of its very nature live up to their highest ideals, but highly responsible newspapers did emerge, like the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Baltimore Sun, The Herald Tribune, The Providence Journal, the Louisville Courier, and quite a few others. They have fallen victim to corporatization, with their admirable style books from which Strunk and White took many ideas and cues. In many ways Elements represents a kind of elegant codification of those earlier efforts to empower the language. Hemingwy’s work—thinking of The Killers’—is heavily influenced by his early exposure to journalism, and I think that can be said of Stephen Crane and many others. There was a nee to communicate quickly, concisely and compellingly, and many of the flourishes of Edward speech and literature had to be re-examined to accomplish this. If it had not taken me a lifetime to reach these conclusions and entertain these — I use the word hopefully—insights, I would have been a very different kind of writer, and probably not a newspaperman at all. One of the most important virtues of Elements, a virtue it falls short of claiming for itself, is that the uses of silence are paramount to good writing, and The Killers exemplifies this truth admirably, as does Emily Dickinson’s poetry.


  2. Mike Schneider
    August 29, 2015

    I love Strunk & White (metaphorically) & so this piece gets my attention. To a large extent, I’m self taught as a writer (what writer isn’t, really?) . . . But Strunk & White . . . that tight, little compendium of very good advice about how to write & what makes style is how, many years ago, I began to grow wings as a writer. I expect I’m not alone among writers in having had no one, least of all parents and family, in my life — even through college — to suggest to me that “a writer” was something I might become. This is despite having gained some small notoriety among my high-school classmates for writing short stories for others when it was assigned in senior English.

    In S&W you learn a style that gets juice from addition by subtraction. From less is more — (to violate an S&W maxim against cliché). “Omit needless words.” Has there been, ever, a better, more concise three words of good writing advice?

    I agree that there’s a fascistic edge to S&W as a grammar guide.Trained grammarians say it’s “prescriptive” — as opposed to more contemporary approaches that acknowledge language’s nature as a living thing, essentially Darwinian, that evolves (like a species) by self-selecting new segments of word-play (like DNA) that enliven and continually enrich our ability to communicate.

    Mr. Volokh’s Washington Post essay is notable for identifying S&W’s clearly muddy (if not outright wrong) notions about passive voice.

    Mr. Marbrook’s piece says nothing about how journalism arrived at its concept of “objectivity” and honed, non-editorializing style as a corrective to the perils of “yellow journalism” that predominated . . . until roughly turn of the 19th to 20th century. Strunk’s original (privately printed) “little book” dates from 1919, though not republished (to become a best-seller classic) with White’s revisions until 1959. And seems clearly to have come from an awareness of the purple-prose excesses of 19th century newspaper writing.

    Mr. Marbrook also neglects to notice S&W’s wry sense of humor . . . “Do not overstate.” White, after all, is the same gentleman admired as a New Yorker writer (in the 1930s & later heyday), as well as author of Charlotte’s Web, among other classics. Strunk was a beloved professor at Cornell, whose writing-course required, his concise guidelines, which White re-worked and published. Elements of Style, still — in my book — is the best single place, if you must choose one, to teach yourself how to write well.


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