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After reading Strunk and White’s, The Elements of Style, Williams’, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, and my peers’ reviews of these two books, I have come up with an all encompassing answer to the question: what is style, and what elements are most important to all writers?
The answer is: there is no clear cut definition of style. It is ever changing; and is based on society’s views of what makes good writing, not necessarily the writer’s own thoughts on the matter. Therefore, the writer is better off following the set rules of grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure, determined by society; then adding her own voice.
The actual elements that make up style are a little less vague, but again, it is up to the individual writer to decide which elements to include in her writing—and which to leave out. Strunk and White have listed “Seven rules of usage, eleven principles of composition, a few matters of form, and a list of words and expressions commonly misused.” (Strunk and White) Strunk and White present their list of rules to would-be writers in hopes that they may one day attain what society deems to be style.
Strunk and White’s rule number six: “Do not break sentences in two—in other words, do not use periods for commas,” (Strunk and White) was interesting because I break it often. Before reading Strunk and White, I was under the impression that when you want a sentence to be emphatic, you can clip it, and force the reader to take notice simply by creating a sentence structure that looks unusual to them. This forces the reader to stop and take another look. Strunk and White warn us that this is not proper, and should be attempted by no means, “Less a clipped sentence seem merely a blunder in syntax or punctuation.”
Strunk and White also claim, “As a rule, single sentences should not be written or printed as paragraphs.” Unfortunately, writing single sentence paragraphs once defined my writing. In grade school, I was told the only way to write well was to write exactly as you speak. I just happen to be the type of person that speaks fast, changes subjects often, emphasizes certain groups of words I want my listeners to grab on to, and then (and this is what often saves me from becoming a complete muddle), summarizes what I was saying.
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If you haven’t noticed by now, Strunk and White, in my mind, grossly define style as simply following basic grammatical rules—their book is chock full of them. “1) Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s; 2) In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last; 3) Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.” The list goes on, but how can this possibly be all there is to stylish prose? Thankfully we have Williams to play the devil’s advocate. In his book, he too gives his reader a list of grammar rules, but then seems to throw those rules in his reader’s face—in a amusingly, non-offensive way of course.
Williams defines style as the means writers use to make their material interesting to their audience. He goes beyond matters of sentence structure to discuss larger matters of form and organization. Williams believes writing is basically a technical experience, not exactly (but it wouldn’t hurt) a form of art. He even mentions in the preface of his book, “The object of our attention is writing whose success we measure not primarily by the pleasure we derive form it, but by how well it does a job of work. If it gives us a tingle of pleasure, so much the better.” Williams goes even further to claim that most good writers first write for themselves, then revise, and revise again to reach their target audience—“That is the central objective of this book: to show how a writer quickly and efficiently transforms a rough draft [once they have made clear to themselves what ideas, points, and arguments might be available] into a version crafted for the reader.”
All three authors, Strunk, White, and Williams wrote texts on how to teach would-be writers to write with style. But both books are problematic. Neither of them was able to clearly define style, or teach its art to their reader. This is because you can’t teach style (just as you can’t clearly define it). It’s simply something you have or don’t have. No amount of studying style manuals can change that—“The best evidence suggests that students who spend a lot of time studying grammar improve their writing not one bit. In fact, they seem to get worse. On the other hand, there is good evidence that mature writers can change the way they write once they grasp a principled way of thinking about language…different from the kind of grammar some of us remember mastering—or being mastered by” (Williams).
What Strunk, White, and Williams didn’t seem to understand when they began their respective books was that style is in constant fluctuation. Any number of societal changes and cultural shifts can up-turn everything that was once learned about good writing in grade school. But it’s basically left to the writer to drudge through the muck of style advice and find her own voice—her own style, and pray it’s acceptable to society’s standards.
When reading through my classmate’s assignments on the subject of Strunk and White, and Williams, I was at once struck by one thing: after reading these two books and analyzing them, my classmates were now afraid to write—anything! And these are people who obviously at one time loved writing; if not, they wouldn’t be in this level of a college English course.
In her Blog, Patty claims, “For me, the challenge to write clearly and with style is now daunting. There is so much information and direction in these two books alone, that I find it difficult to keep everything in mind as I formulate my thoughts into a clear, readable essay.” Is this what the authors intended when they first picked up their pens and scribbled out the beginning pages of their texts? I think not. The purpose of these advice manuals was simply that, to give advice. Not to be taken literally; word for word.
Truly defining style cannot be done, because everyone has her own idea of what true style encompasses. The very idea that Strunk and White, and Williams could write two books on the same subject that are nearly complete opposites of each other is a testament to this fact. Who is to say what stylish writing is, and what it is not. Obviously education doesn’t make a difference. All three authors were highly educated; and yet, they have different opinions about what creates style. Would this mean there is no such thing as style—it’s all just a matter of opinion? William Strunk and E.B. White would argue no. They believe that there is a finite set of rules a writer must follow in order to achieve what society deems to be “stylish writing.” Any deviation from these rules will result in a garbled muck that is neither stylish nor coherent to readers. It’s the job of any sensible English speaker to inform struggling writers of these rules; and God help those who haven’t learned them yet—“Will [Strunk] felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of time, floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get the reader up on dry ground, or at least to throw a rope.”
Williams also felt that most writers were floundering in a swamp, but more so in a swamp of dated grammar advice, and it’s up to the good judgment of educators to pull them out. In effect, his book claims good writers can get away with breaking these dated rules, but novices should avoid “bad” usage at any costs, lest they be considered ignorant by society’s standards—“Until we recognize the arbitrary nature of our judgments, too many of us will take ‘bad’ grammar as evidence of laziness, carelessness, or a low IQ. That belief is not just wrong. It is socially destructive.”
William Strunk, E.B. White, and Joseph Williams have hit on some very interesting points in their books. They each describe their thoughts on how a writer should present her own style to her audience. But in my opinion, a writer should consider these texts as containing helpful hints for “good writing,” rather than a writer’s Bible. Although I cannot claim to have enjoyed reading either of these books, I must admit that after studying them, I have become a more conscientious writer, if not a better one.
Clark, Patty. Patty@Eng328. Blogger. 2003. Pyra Labs. 20 Oct. 2003. http://pattyclark.blogspot.com/.
Strunk Jr., William, and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. New York: Longman, 2000.
Williams, Joseph. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990.