One of the most popular professors at the Claremont Colleges has been dead nearly 70 years. No – he isn’t a ghost or a zombie. Cornell Professor William Strunk, Jr.’s guide on writing, The Elements of Style, has aided countless undergraduates at the Claremont Colleges in refining their writing. The pocket-sized paperback has been in wide distribution since it was edited and expanded by Strunk’s former student, E.B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web), in 1959, and is now in its fourth edition.
Wide distribution is not just an expression in the case of Strunk & White, as the pamphlet is commonly known. In its first half-century, it has sold more than 10 million copies. The mention of Strunk & White can provoke cross remarks or high praise. While some rules, like the third rule, “Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas,” are widely agreed upon as fact, others like the seventeenth, “Omit needless words,” which declares that “vigorous writing is concise,” generate fierce debate within literary circles.
One English Professor writes that Strunk & White’s “advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense.” In his eyes, the guide boils down to nothing more than “grammatical incompetents” and “idiosyncratic bumblers,” among other things.
Claremont McKenna College’s own Strunk & White evangelist, Government Professor John J. Pitney, would not be so unsympathetic. To Professor Pitney, “It’s a brief, clear book that teaches people how to write briefly and clearly.” Brevity and clarity are commonly accepted as the central tenets of this 85-page work, written for people of all ages, but especially for students.
Strunk & White brings to mind a different sort of device that has trained young people to make every word count: Twitter. We asked Professor Pitney, an avid tweeter himself, for his thoughts on Twitter with relation to Strunk & White. Both Strunk and White died well before the Internet was born, yet they surely would have had their own thoughts on one of its most unique and successful hatchlings.
Putting himself in their shoes, Pitney imagines that “they’d have mixed feelings. On the good side, it forces users to write concisely. On the bad side, it enables them to publish without thinking. Just look at what happened to Anthony Weiner.”
In that same vein, Pitney likened Twitter to the printing press. Both “spawned a vast amount of junk,” yet they also offer “more people more access to good information and writing than ever before.”
What most take away from their experience with Strunk & White is that they should refine each sentence down to as few words as possible; however, I would argue that such a mentality, while meritorious in and of itself, serves a second purpose. Paying closer attention to each word and its ability to contribute to a composition helps us arrive at what needs to be said more quickly, but also more clearly.
While a strict adherence to Strunk & White is not ideal for every writer, close attention to one’s word choice is imperative.
The transition in style from high school to college writing can be a challenging one for new students. Perhaps Strunk & White would not be a bad place to start for freshmen looking to improving their rhetorical prowess.
“Overall, it does more good than harm,” Pitney concluded in his best Strunk & White impersonation.