Even MORE About the Illustrated Elements of Style (and the problem of "Writing")

Talk about a little story that has legs: on NPR’s “Morning Edition” yesterday (I actually started writing this post while listening to this show yesterday morning; it’s been one thing or another the last couple of days), there was a fairly long piece about the recently published illustrated version of The Elements of Style. Besides talking about the book and its illustrations, the story also talked about the “opera” (but not really so much an opera as a song cycle) that has words based on the book. They have a web site that includes samples of two songs, the story from earlier, and a few pictures from the book.

By the way, the music, IMO, is what Laurie Anderson once referred to in a piece of hers as “Difficult Listening Music.” But I’ll let you be the judge of that.

I don’t want to make too much out of this, and I do think that the Maria Kalman illustrations are hilarious and charming. But I guess I have two problems with the way that these reports talk about The Elements of Style. First, while there is a lot of useful advice in Strunk’s and White’s little book, there’s quite a bit wrong with it, too. The book doesn’t so much offer instruction as it offers Strunk’s (and, I am sure, White’s) “pet peeves” about grammar and useage. Strunk’s and White’s advice– “Be clear,” “Omit needless words,” “Do not affect a breezy manner,” etc.– are merely affirmations. They are to writing instruction what Dr. Phil is to psychotherapy.

And beyond that, Strunk’s and White’s editions of the book are elitist and down-right sexist. I say “Strunk’s and White’s editions” because the latest edition of the book and the edition that Kalman illustrated was published in 2000, about 15 years after White’s death and at least 45 years since Strunk’s demise. This is significant because there are some interesting differences between the 2000 edition and the 1979 edition: many of the examples have been changed to make the book at least a bit more inclusive, they actually mention computers (not significantly, but more than they did in 1979, of course), and they eliminate White’s rather defensive prose on the use of “he” for the generic pronoun. In fact, one of the examples that Kalman illustrates– something like “Chlöe smells good, like a pretty baby should” (Kalman has a picture of a big and pretty baby)– was originally “Chlöe smells good, like a pretty girl should,” which obviously has different connotations. There are dozens of examples like this. I suppose we can credit Strunk’s and White’s assumptions to the fact that the book is a “product of a different time,” but we shouldn’t gloss over Strunk’s and White’s view of the world with a revision that “corrects” them.

The second issue is more significant and more difficult to do anything about, the concept “out there” about what counts as “writing.” Just about every English professor or teacher in the universe has been in the situation where they meet a stranger (on a plane, at a party, waiting in a line, whatever) and after they tell the stranger that they are an English professor or teacher, the stranger says something like “Oh, I better watch my grammar.” And when I tell people outside of English studies (and sometimes inside, too!) that I do things in my classes like make web sites, study email exchanges, examine the balance between text and graphics, etc., etc., they get a bit confused.

I was reading Kathy Yancey’s CCCC 2003 keynote essay the other day (I think it was the 2003 keynote; it was published in the December 2004 issue of the CCCs) and I think she makes a pretty good argument about where we ought to be going with writing. One quote that sort of sums it up for me:

This new composition includes rhetoric and is about literacy. New composition includes the literacy of print: it adds on to it and brings the notions of practice and activity and circulation and media and screen and networking to our conceptions of process. It will require a new expertise of us as it does of our students. And ultimately, new composition may require a new site for learning for all of us.

Right on; now, the question is how do we convince people outside of our own narrow little world that this ought to be what they think of “writing?” And how do we get a story about this new concept of writing in the New York Times or on NPR?

3 thoughts on “Even MORE About the Illustrated Elements of Style (and the problem of "Writing")”

  1. I’m often recommending, purely in my capacity as know-it-all amateur, that people pick up Hoffman & Hoffman’s Adios, Strunk and White. Have you seen it?

  2. Actually, I’ve taught that book before, believe it or not. It’s kind of a strange book, IMO. I think they offer some really good advice in a new way, they offer some really bad advice in a way that I guess is new, and then, in the last 100 or more pages of the book, they offer some surprisingly traditional and dated advice. It’s a wacky book, alright….

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