Frankenstrunk is Shrunken Strunk
2005/10/23/frankenstrunk/, Jan Freeman's The Word column, "Frankenstrunk," looks at the latest, cartoon enhanced edition of Will Strunk and E.B. White's The Elements of Style and asks, why, why is this book still revised and republished.
Of course, the answer is, as Freeman says, because even though the book itself is now irretrievably --to use a White term -- bewhiskered, it's also beloved:
So rather than join the reality-based usage community, White stuck with Strunkian dogmatism. Hence a book that tells us, in 2005, that off-putting and ongoing are illegitimate; that hopefully is beyond the pale; and that six people is a solecism because there's no such thing as one people.The promise of certitude in Strunk's clipped delivery and the prose confidence of White's elegiac opening and closing (which, by the way, bespeak more fondness for his professor than they exhibit fidelity to his rules) comfort writers. You read the volume and can't help but think, White learned from Strunk, and if I can follow this advice, then I'll write like White.
Why does this sort of thing send reviewers into raptures? Maybe they remember, from their college days, a reassuringly slim volume that pretended it could solve their writing problems. The ''Strunkian attitude toward right-and-wrong," in White's eccentrically hyphenated phrase, may still stir in readers the eternal hope that someone, somewhere, knows what he's doing.
No writer believes that as they think it, but they believe in the hope of it. The hope sustains them. So the book is less a guide and more a talisman of sorts, something to have on the shelf, something to touch and open for good-writer karma and energy. But good writers remember that White wasn't slave to Strunk, and that language lives, and that Strunk's "Elements" were Strunk's preferences. They're quirky and fairly arbitrary and curious. But not hard and fast universal rules.
Writing works best when the writer understands which words to use when. White understood this and so frequently broke from Strunk's dogmas because his prose and the needs of his pieces demanded as much.
And I keep my copy of the 1959 edition of Elements of Style handy. I hardly ever open it, maybe every few years just to read White's essay on style or to read the kind note inside from the friend who gave me the edition. I have a Strunk and White. I like having it. And it's clarity has helped me. Not because I necessarily followed the advice or even agree with it now, but because at a more formative time in my writing life, it gave me a simple place to depart from. It made me feel like a writer to have it. When I first read White's advice (far more than Strunk's), it cheered me to have a writer I love talk to me about writing. I keep the book for that feeling more than any other.
I've thus had no desire in reading the Angell revision from 1999, and certainly have no desire now to get the new illustrated version. I've skimmed the Angell, and the book seems less. What makes the '59 edition work is that it's the thing itself and of its time and place. It's closer in time to Strunk, and it's the personality of Strunk --more than his advice-- that is interesting now. These newer versions each seem more disparate and desperate as they stretch to stay relevant yet faithful.
As for Freeman, this urge to revise doesn't make sense to me, but given the continued praise of the book from readers who are new to it, the cult of Strunk and White lives and makes publishing sense. The beauty of Strunk's quirks and preferences are that they were born of man and a time and a place. It's the historicity of the original that makes it increasingly valuable and that makes the revisions increasingly useless.
I'm sure somewhere out there, among the roughly 4,200 two and four year colleges and universities where tens of thousands of writing instructors are toiling to help novice writers become more competent and confident in the ludicrously brief span of a semester, a new Strunk awaits. Some writing instructor some where likely has a short guide to his or her preferences for writing, and those preferences are tied to today's age, conventions, and writing technologies in ways that Strunk's could not be (and cannot adequately be made to be).
So I'm with Freeman. No more revisions, please. They diminish the original. If new a Strunk and White is needed, let it come from a writing teacher who is teaching today. Let it be new. Let it be original. Let it fit our time.