Strunk and White’s step-by-step manual of sentence construction

As another National Grammar Day arrives, we look again at the century-old ‘Elements of Style,’ which many writers find fusty and sexist. Still, it offers some timeless tips for today’s scribes.

One pleasure of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s “The Elements of Style” is their willingness to address small questions and greater points alike.

As we move on with our series on the 100th anniversary of White’s first encounter with the eccentric Professor Strunk, we finish off our look at the first section, ending with points five through eight.

“Elements” has long won admirers among writing professionals.

“I am a big fan,” says Gini Dietrich,  founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. “I have an English degree with a creative writing focus, so ‘The Elements of Style’ has always been by my side. In fact, my grandmother gave me her copy when I graduated from college. Its copyright is 1979. Some things have changed since then, but I still keep it on my desk.”

Others, however, feel the influential work has grown stale.

Explains writer and editor Sue Horner, “Rereading S&W reminded me that they have a somewhat pompous tone and often use the passive voice. Also, all of the writers they writing to are male. ‘But a writer may err by making his sentences too uniformly compact and periodic…’ and ‘According to the writer’s purpose, he may…’ Maybe that’s why so many people have a bone to pick with S&W.”

In first section, “Elementary Rules of Usage,” Strunk, the Cornell University egghead, and White, the author of the beloved children’s books “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little,” move step by step from the smallest details (apostrophes) to greater matters of sentence construction.

“Do not join independent clauses by a comma [alone],” Strunk beseeches.

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Semicolons still work

In an era that frowns upon semicolons, the book reminds us how neatly they can be used to avoid comma splices or conjunctions such as “and” or “but”:

If two or more clauses, grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction, are to form a single compound sentence, the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon.

Stevenson’s romances are entertaining; they are full of exciting adventures.

It is nearly half past five; we cannot reach town before dark.

Nowadays, it is far more common to replace semicolons with periods or to separate such clauses with a comma and a conjunction. These options, too, are correct, as Strunk and White note:

Stevenson’s romances are entertaining. They are full of exciting adventures.

or

Stevenson’s romances are entertaining, for they are full of exciting adventures.

“Points five to seven I completely and wholeheartedly agree with,” Dietrich says. “I can still hear my junior high school English teacher talking about dangling modifiers, so yes to all of that! Can we also talk about the Oxford comma?”

(This refers to the final comma in a serial list—such as red, white, and blue—a punctuation mark prescribed by “Elements” but generally avoided by AP style.)

Strunk and White add a point that I had missed on previous readings: If, instead of a conjunction, the second clause is preceded by an adverb (such as “accordingly,” “besides,” “so,” “then,” “therefore,” or “thus”) the semicolon is still required. Consider this example:

I had never been in the place before; so I had difficulty in finding my way about.

Beverly Friedmann, a content manager for ReviewingThis, has mixed views of “Elements,” and this section in particular.

“Novice writers can take some of these pointers as a jumping-off point and learn a lot about clarity in literary communication style, but there is also a lot to take with a grain of salt,” she says. “It’s important to not take every point—especially the ones you have outlined [Nos. 5-8]—too literally, for lack of a better term.”

Tripping over dangling modifiers

Legions of copywriters, speechwriters and communicators would save themselves grief and readers’ derision if they would refer to point No. 7:

A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.

Walking slowly down the road, he saw a woman accompanied by two children.

The word walking refers to the subject of the sentence, not to the woman. If the writer wishes to make it refer to the woman, he must recast the sentence:

He saw a woman, accompanied by two children, walking slowly down the road.

On the other hand, Strunk and White offer examples of what can go wrong for those who don’t follow the above rule.

This point “is one that trips up so many people,” Horner says. “It’s most obviously and amusingly wrong in one of the examples (‘Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap’), but often sneaks past (‘On arriving in Chicago, his friends met him at the station.’). This is not so much an S&W rule like ‘Omit needless words,’ but a helpful reminder to pay attention to your writing.”

The “Elementary Rules of Usage” chapter ends with advice that is mostly dated in today’s era of writing on computers. The authors’ tips about dividing words at line endings bring back images of newspapers of yore, when typesetters laid out the lines backward and printer’s devils were underfoot, sweeping up fallen type.

“The Section 8 pointers are rather odd,” Dietrich says. “I prefer to just move the entire word down so there isn’t a widow or a weird dash, but that’s a preferential/OCD thing, not a stylistic or grammar thing.”

Readers, what are your thoughts about the relevance of “The Elements of Style” to modern writing?

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