Style Controversy

Style Controversy

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Style Controversy


Upon completion of the both stylebooks, Strunk and White and Williams, I have found that style is much more than whatever one sees fit for themselves. This is true at least for essay writing not necessarily creative writing. As with other debated subjects where guidelines are drawn as to what constitutes a good work of art, film, or music, writing has guidelines which good compositions fit into and can therefore be compared and contrasted with other works. That is not to say there is one way to do any essay but there are parameters which must be met and set for a paper to be critiqued.

S&W would like to set up a correct way to do everything; according to them there is only one right way and everything else is wrong. This authoritarian point of view on writing is scary but some of the things they say are poignant. For instance when they speak of participial phrases, as I have mentioned in my first blog writing, they tell and show how to do this correctly and it is easily implemented. “A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject” (13). To someone who understands what a participial phrase is along with what and where the grammatical subject of a sentence is this makes sense. It is clear, concise, and effective one can quickly look to the rule for reference and continue on with their paper.

When looking for quick reference on how to fix grammar mistakes this is a good way to go about finding answers but not for a stylebook. There needs to be more discussion. It would be nice to say that good style is just correct grammar and word usage but it’s not so.

Williams knows this and blatantly points this out in his preface of the book. He acknowledges that his book is different from stylebooks in the past mentioning that this book is not for everyone. Williams divulges secrets of the trade in an interesting although sometimes hard to grasp conversation with the reader on all subjects of writing. This does include grammatical problems and word usage concerns but Williams explains both sides and shows how at times both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ aspects of writing can be right depending on the context it is used in.

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Style to Williams is more about getting your point across to the reader in an efficient manner. “Since a writer usually overestimates how much readers know, a writer should give readers more help than he thinks they need. This book lays out principles that help a writer predict how easily a reader will comprehend complex and unfamiliar material when that reader is not deeply versed in it”(xv). I tend to agree with him. I believe style changes from one subject to another but there is one constant in it, get some point across intelligently to the reader and always keep the reader in mind when composing an essay.

Style is personal, it’s the voice that comes across to the reader in the writing but if the reader cannot comprehend what the writer is trying to say how can a voice be heard? Perhaps the problem with Strunk and White is just that, whoever would derive their style from such a book would end up sounding like everyone else that did. But that was the goal of writers during the time in which the book was originally written; to sound alike, mimic those great writings done before your time, that’s the key to greatness. Williams addresses in his book as well.

The standard books on style don’t go much beyond high mindedness. They are all for accuracy, brevity, clarity, and so forth, but beyond offering good and bad examples, none of them explains how to achieve those ends. The standard books gesture toward audiences, but none of them explains in detail how a writer must anticipate what readers look for as they make their way through complex, usually unfamiliar material. Standard books seem wholly innocent of recent work done in the cognitive sciences, much of it centrally relevant to understanding the problems that readers have to solve every time they begin a new sentence. Standard books mainly address belletristic or journalistic writing. None of them reflects sustained experience working with writers in areas other than literature and journalism (i).


Keeping this in mind, how standard stylebooks deal with readers, Williams outlines to process one needs to go through to write a well-written paper. But I have already said well written doesn’t necessarily mean style. I look at it like this, if your wardrobe is filled with all designer clothes nothing but Prada, Luis Vitton, and Armani does that mean you are always going to look stylish. Of course not. Brand name clothes don’t mean you know not to wear navy with black or can pick out patterns that are flattering to your body type. It takes something more than the basics to have style. You have to be able to pull it off, it takes know with all. Just because you know how to make every sentence you write grammatically correct, each paragraph flow flawlessly into one another doesn’t mean you a. have a point or b. have style. Style is something more it’s avant garde. Sadly I feel many people have style but it’s pushed down so far do to books such and Strunk and White they forget how to use it.

By using books like S&W in their classes, teachers, tell students things like: be clear, write short sentences, don’t’ use conjunctions, etc. Rather than telling them these are the rules, know them, then with your reader in mind break them at your will. See what happens. This is to hard for teachers to do though they would rather have it one way and no exceptions. They figure students will find their style on their own and figure these things out later. I find that sad. We are too worried about confusing students that we allow them to write meaningless confusing papers for the sake of grammar.

An example of a college student’s paper was shown in class, Roxanne, poor Roxanne. She was obviously taught all the right grammar and how to structure a paper but she has no voice. The paper sounds like a boring pamphlet you would find at a welcome center in Ohio. In her paper, for a 100 level college English class, Roxanne talks of a family going to Cedar Point, an amusement park. She never once uses the word I. Reading the paper you feel this aching to use the word instead opting for ‘the family’. She has a plethora of Dick and Jane sentences, similar to those found in Strunk and White’s examples, she also lacks any creative ability at all. Roxannes is the perfect example of having no style. But I do not blame Roxanne for not having style it was the way she was taught to write. She was never told to entice the reader or to try to keep their attention, she was simply told to be correct.

Is this what the world is coming to? If stylebooks like Strunk and White continue to plague our educational facilities, yes. If we can implement Williams teachings this can be avoided, keep the reader in mind, I don’t think that’s too hard for a high school student to grasp. As long as that can be said style will come with time and effort.


Works Cited:

Stunk, William, White, E.B. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. Person Education Co. Needham Heights, Massachusetts. 2000. p. 13.

Williams, Joseph. Style Toward Clarity and Grace. University of Chicago Press. Chicago, Illinois. 1990. p. I-vx.
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