Earth, Air, Fire and Strunk

I’ve been flipping through Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (2nd ed., 1972), prompted by a glance through Weird Tales‘ guidelines. I’ve owned the book for roughly 30 years and hated it continously all through that time. I don’t suppose I’ve actually had it open since the 1970s but its stupid lying prohibitions have been dogging my steps since, apparently, before I was born.

It’s not as if there is no good advice in Strunk and White. Right there on page one the it’s/its thing is handled with deft concision. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve marked a student paper for something like that, I would, um, have ever so many nickels. I’d love to be able to hand this book to students and say, “Read this and use it.”

But on the same stupid page it says that one may not form the possessive of a word ending in -s with a simple apostrophe. Except for the name of Jesus. But not the name of Moses or Isis. One must write The laws of Moses but never never Moses’ laws or Moses’s laws. Jesus’ laws–totally okay. Charles’ laws–totally wrong. Why? These are Strunk’s laws. Yours is not to reason why, not if you want a passing grade in composition.

Those who internalize these ad hoc prescriptions will not improve their English. Charles’ and Charles’s are both in common use and there is no reason to thunder against one or the other. But those who read S&W and believe it are likely to become usage-fetishists, constantly squeaking in excitement and horror when someone violates some dictate of the Master.

A decent style guide ought to combine direct, useful advice with tools that would assist the reader to think about writing effectively, rather than cookie-cutter mandates that kill thought. (Adverbs are bad! They make the angels cry!) And, of course, it ought to have some kind of linguistic accuracy. (Although prescriptivists tend to hate descriptive linguistics as much as linguists hate prescriptivism, the only valid basis for a stylistic prescription is sound linguistic knowledge.)

I wish I knew of such a guide. But, whatever it is, it’s not Strunk.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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4 Responses to Earth, Air, Fire and Strunk

  1. I’d heard it, Jesus’ and Socrates’.

    The most sensible thing I’ve seen, says it depends on pronunciation.

  2. filomancer says:

    You know, it’s old, but Fowler’s Modern English Usage is good for lots of stuff. And also his King’s English. I have a new edition of the latter on my desk but it’s still in the shrink-wrap.

    • JE says:

      I do like Fowler, not because I think he’s always right, but because he’s an amusing writer who’s thought a lot about English. Also, he’s big on evidence; he never expects the reader to bow down before his unsupported word.

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