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.