(Writing) Style Wars: A New Hope

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is a classic style guide, and it’s useful in many ways. Arguably one of its biggest contributions is that it gets us to think about the way we put words together. William Strunk demanded mindfulness, and that’s a good thing.

But it’s also a lot to live up to. For many would-be writers, Strunk and White can be downright intimidating. And that’s not a good thing.

Strunk doesn’t help things by using his signature voice, which even I find forbidding. Have you ever checked out his rant against the word “hopefully,” for example? Nine times out of ten, idiomatic American English speakers use “hopefully” to mean roughly “I hope,” as in “Hopefully, I’ll finish this report today.”

Strunk sneers at this usage. “Hopefully” is an adverb that means “in a hopeful manner,” as in “The dog looked hopefully at the table scraps.”

Of course, Strunk’s own castigation of misusers of hopefully is a little, ah, less charitable, and it exemplifies the voice problem that I describe above:

This once-useful adverb meaning “with hope has been distorted and is now widely used to mean “I hope” or “it is to be hoped.” Such use is not merely wrong, it is silly. To say, “Hopefully, I’ll leave on the noon plane” is to talk nonsense. Do you mean you’ll leave on the noon plane in a hopeful frame of mind? Or do you mean you hope you’ll leave on the noon plane? Whichever you mean, you haven’t said it clearly. Although the word in its new, free-floating capacity may be pleasurable and even useful to many, it offends the ear of many others, who do not like to see words dulled or eroded, particularly when the erosion leads to ambiguity, softness, or nonsense. (William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style. Fourth ed. New York: Longman, 2000. 48)

Ouch. Just listen to that accusatory “you” in the passage. Let me clarify that it’s not a matter of whether Strunk is right. He is. My objection is to the tone. The message implicit in The Elements of Style is that writing well is a hopelessly complex endeavor, fraught with pitfalls and rife with opportunities to make yourself look like a fool.

We all know that writing is hard work. But you’re looking to a style guide for help, not contempt. This holier-than-thou attitude is why I see so many creative, bright people who say they can’t write because they don’t know what a comma splice is.

If only there were a more friendly style guide that also focuses on making thoughtful choices as a writer. Turns out there is. It’s my pleasure to introduce you to John R Trimble and his book Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing.

Trimble provides sound advice, and his book is a pleasure to read. His opening section, “Fundamentals,” focuses on large-scale issues like structure and readability. He attacks the purveyors of the “religion of Formal English” in a thought-provoking chapter entitled “Superstitions.” And of course, he includes a lot of specific guidance on matters of style, usage, and punctuation.

What do you think are the most important qualities to have in a writing style guide? Let me know in the comments.

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7 Responses to (Writing) Style Wars: A New Hope

  1. Katherine says:

    Thank you for the tip about the Trimble guide!

    I feel a need to defend Strunk, though. What I love about The Elements of Style is that is doesn’t waffle or pander to timidity. Somehow I find that straightforwardness empowering. I also find the examples excellent — if I don’t happen to know the formal grammatical term, I can learn what it is from the examples.

    It’s interesting that you used comma splices as an example of a construction people are nervous about identifying. Whenever I join critique groups, I encounter at least one person who does commas entirely “by feel”, and takes more out or puts more in according to what they feel the “pace” of the sentence should be. The usual result is that they have run-on sentences spliced together by commas. A little formal education and a (metaphorical) rap on the knuckles could well be useful for them.

  2. Thanks for the heads up on this book, Loren. Despite appearances to the contrary, I’ve read “Elements” and found the tone to be a bit much. Another tirade he went on that chaffed me was on the use of “however.” Yes, I know it’s not “supposed” to start a sentence, but common usage has made it the norm so much that now it sounds awkward in its “proper” place. Okay, rant off.

    I’ll check out WWS as soon as I clear my current backlog. Great to hear from you.

  3. loren says:

    Great comments, Katherine and Charlie!

    Katherine, I think my specific experiences teaching writing do bias me toward a less rigid guide. Time and time again, I encounter students whose natural writing inclinations have been scared out of them by what you (beautifully) call “knuckle rapping.” I have to encourage students to learn that there’s more to writing than “the rules.” I can see that a critique group would provide a very different perspective, though.

    Charlie, I took a look at the “however” section, and it made me laugh. As Katherine says, Strunk certainly doesn’t waffle!

    Cheers,
    Loren

  4. Thanks for mentioning the Trimble style guide. I love having quality books to suggest to people who are wandering and need help.

    Strunk, I think, bothers us more than it bothered people when it first came out. The book’s tone was intended for readers of another age regardless of the quality of the advice. Today, we are more casual about everything from wearing dungarees to church to calling people we don’t know by their first names. So, Strunk just seems much too strong.

    Being strong sometimes intimidates people the wrong way. Great authors certainly use comma splices effectively; and they know when to start a sentence with the “and” or “however.” People getting started often take everything Strunk says as gospel, never knowing that as a writer one of their first duties is learning when the most sacred rules should be broken.

    Very interesting post. Glad I stumbled into your blog today.

    Malcolm

  5. Your insights about the book is true. Strunk’s straightforward approach in his book is somewhat rare for most writers.

  6. Ainsley says:

    It’s interesting that you used comma splices as an example of a construction people are nervous about identifying. Whenever I join critique groups, I encounter at least one person who does commas entirely “by feel”, and takes more out or puts more in according to what they feel the “pace” of the sentence should be. The usual result is that they have run-on sentences spliced together by commas. A little formal education and a (metaphorical) rap on the knuckles could well be useful for them.
    +1

  7. Ken says:

    If “Hopefully I’ll leave on the noon plane” is wrong, then is “Unfortunately, the rain arrived five minutes later” also wrong?

    An adverb used in this way is called a disjunct, and it’s a perfectly respectable (not to say, elegant) usage that allows the user to indicate their emotional stance towards the subject under discussion. But for reasons that are deeply mysterious to me, “hopefully” seems to have been singled out as one adverb that must never be used this way.

    I’m willing to stick my neck out and say that in this case, Mr Strunk is plain wrong.

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