It came as a shock to me last summer to realize that I had written an entire book about American usage and barely mentioned that most famous (and slimmest) of American usage guides, The Elements of Style. I’d touched on it once, but only to quote E.B. White on feeling over his head in writing about English grammar. He wrote by ear, he said, without “any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood.” And when I compiled a list of useful books as an appendix I somehow left off Strunk and White. What was I going to say when someone asked, as someone inevitably would, “What about Strunk and White?” That I’d forgotten? Or that The Elements of Style had served several generations and now it was my turn? “I’d rethink that if I were you,” a friend said.
In the years since 1979, when the third edition of The Elements of Style was issued (the last to be revised by Mr. White), critics have been swatting at the little book like a piñata. In 1991, Craig Seligman, a friend and former colleague at the New Yorker who went on to become a fearless book critic, published in the Threepenny Review a reassessment of White that was quite contrarian. While researching my book, I plucked from a library shelf in Queens a volume called Spunk & Bite, published in 2007, whose author, Arthur Plotnick, thundered that we had all been “E. B. Whitewashed” and that the older book was not just out of date but “geriatric.” As if that were not unkind enough, the linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum marked the 50th anniversary of The Elements of Style, in 2008, with a blog post titled “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.”
As it turned out, it was still possible to add Strunk and White to the list of useful books, if I wanted to. But did I want to? Had I perhaps been unconsciously persuaded by some of the bunk and spite? What was the idea of this appendix, anyway? Was I giving the reader a to-do list? Or was this list of books intended as an homage to those who had gone before, acknowledging that I couldn’t have written my book without them? In merchandising, I’ve learned, you never reveal your sources. In writing, you damn well better, because otherwise your sources will reveal themselves. Paging through Strunk and White—carefully, because my vintage paperback is split along the spine—I realized that the reason I hadn’t felt compelled to cite the book was that I had so thoroughly internalized it. The use of apostrophes following a sibilant, the loyalty to the serial comma, the instinct to “place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end”—this was advice I had been following tranquilly ever since I can remember. Strunk and White had imprinted on me like a mother duck.
So was I going to leave it behind or was I going to take it forward? Is it still useful? Absolutely—especially to the young, though it itself is old. It’s also a publishing phenomenon; its history was recapped a few years ago in Stylized, by Mark Garvey. It was updated in 2000, given fresh examples, including more from women writers, and a revisionist sensitivity to gender. The year 2018 will mark the 100th anniversary of Prof. William Strunk’s original document, printed privately for his composition students at Cornell in 1918. The voice endures, strong and calm, as full of humor as it is of wisdom. It continues to make people argue. I think I’ll keep it. After all, I should be so lucky as to write a book that sticks around for 100 years.