A Half-Century Of 'Stupid Grammar Advice'

Linguist Geoffrey Pullum won't be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.

In his recent article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, he writes that the guide has "significantly degraded" American students' grasp of grammar.

Strunk And White's Venerable Writing Guide Is 50

E.B. White i i

E.B. White's revision of his former college professor's 43-page self-published book became an essential text for writers. Photo courtesy of the E.B. White Estate hide caption

itoggle caption Photo courtesy of the E.B. White Estate
E.B. White

E.B. White's revision of his former college professor's 43-page self-published book became an essential text for writers.

Photo courtesy of the E.B. White Estate

The Making Of A Classic

With this letter, Macmillan editor Jack Case sent E.B. White his first copy of the newly published Elements of Style: "Here it is — lean and clean and sound as a dollar, which is what it costs."

In this letter, E.B. White (signed "Andy") thanks Jack Case for sending photocopies of what was apparently Will Strunk's own copy of the original Elements of Style.

This telegram from California Book Co. (supplier to the Berkeley college bookstore) is an indicator of the book's early success. Placing an order for more copies, it ends with the words "Whole campus gone wild."

William Strunk Jr. i i

White wrote of William Strunk Jr., his former professor, "He was a memorable man, friendly and funny." Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Kroch Library, Cornell University hide caption

itoggle caption Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Kroch Library, Cornell University
William Strunk Jr.

White wrote of William Strunk Jr., his former professor, "He was a memorable man, friendly and funny."

Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Kroch Library, Cornell University

The Elements of Style, the definitive writing guide by E.B. White and William Strunk Jr., turns 50 on Thursday. To mark the anniversary, its publisher has released an elegantly bound, gold-embossed hardcover edition containing notes about the book's history.

In 1957, White, who wrote the children's classics Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, rediscovered a brief guide to style by Strunk, his professor at Cornell University. White wrote an essay about it in the July 1957 issue of The New Yorker, introducing what would eventually become a bible for countless writers:

"The Elements of Style" was Will Strunk's parvum opus, his attempt to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin. Will himself hung the title "little" on the book: he referred to it sardonically and with secret pride as "the little book," always giving the word "little" a special twist, as though he were putting a spin on a ball.

At the behest of an editor at the publisher Macmillan, White revised and expanded Strunk's "little book," which would go on to sell more than 10 million copies after its publication as The Elements of Style in 1959.

Barbara Wallraff, who writes about language, is among the fans of the guide that some refer to simply as "Strunk and White."

"There's a certain Zen quality to some of [the book's rules], like, 'Be clear,' " Wallraff tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "There's a lot being conveyed there in two words, in exactly how to do it. People will spend whole other books explaining [that]. Or, 'Omit needless words.' That's probably the most famous dictum from this book."

The new edition of The Elements of Style also includes a compilation of praise for the book from writers over the years. Wallraff's favorite remark is from Dorothy Parker, who reviewed the guide for Esquire magazine: "If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they're happy."

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