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If I Hear "Strunk and White"
One More Time I'll Scream....

I have to tell you that I have never thought much of Strunk and White, but being the pleasant, jovial, easy-to-get-along with person that I am, I usually just shake my head whenever somebody in awed tones mention the "Bible" of good writing, The Elements of Style. But I've been pushed over the edge of restrained tolerance by Scott Rosenberg's review of Edward Tufte's books on the design of information -- a really good review, mind you, but one which waves the flag in the direction of Strunk and White in a bit too cavalier a manner.

Tufte has just come out with his third book on design. In "The Data Artist" at the Salon website, Rosenberg reviews Tufte's new Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative The article also places Tufte's work, including the now classic The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983), followed by his Envisioning Information (1990), in context. Rosenberg reports that Tufte considers his first book about "pictures of numbers," his second about "pictures of nouns," and this, his third, about "pictures of verbs."

Tufte even quotes E.B. White's comment, Rosenberg notes, that to write decently one must respect a reader's intelligence. That's O.K. with me. But then Rosenberg comments that Tufte's books are approaching "another classic": the perennially rewarding writer's guide by White and William Strunk, Jr.
Well, that's it. I can no longer stay quietly in my seat.

Perennially rewarding? Hardly. Rather, a bunch of rules (21 in all) that are so vacuous that anybody could have come up with them (Rule 13: Omit needless words). White was simply at the right place at the right time with something to fill the vacuum left by prescriptive grammars. This is a lot like salivating over Aristotle's great contribution to writing (I am really opening up myself to major flames here).

Now, I grant you what Aristotle achieved was remarkable for his time. I even grant you that some of his advice about the psychology of writing was pretty much on the mark. But pul...eessse. Spare me any long philosophical explications of the enthymeme, something we're really not quite sure what Aristotle meant by, although a goodly number of people regularly agonize over this problem in the in writing circles.

We know a lot more about how people write today than we knew in Strunk and White's day, not to mention Aristotle's. And, good grief, there's no comparison between the depth and quality of information Tufte gives in the 500 pages of his three books compared to the 71 pages the publisher managed to pad Strunk and White up to, even including the history of how it all came about.

So let's give Strunk and White a rest. Visit them now and again for old times' sake, sort of like visiting our venerable elders so we can hear what's wrong with the modern world, writ in broad, general terms. But let's stop waving Strunk and White in the air for effect.

Interestingly enough, Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage isn't held in nearly as high repute as Strunk and White if mere repetition of the name is used to measure worth. Fowler actually put together quite a lengthy list of useful information for writers struggling with usage. I don't agree with Fowler on two perennially hot topics on language usage lists:

(1) the distinction between which and that, and
(2) his take on comprise.

But hey, there's lots of other good stuff there. A lot more than 71 pages. Fowler, however, wasn't nearly as personable as Strunk and White, as least in his book.

So, yo, Scott -- nice article. But please keep Strunk and White in perspective.

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