Suzanne Fields

The latest skeptic of this guide to good writing is Stanley Fish, a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University and a columnist for The New York Times. He doesn't like Strunk and White's rules for good writing, which he regards as picayune and elementary. He's also got a new book out, "How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One." (But he likes Charles Portis and "True Grit," which certainly would have delighted Strunk and White.)

Strunk and White offend certain professors because their "brief for brevity," as one critic calls it, teaches in 43 brief pages what learned professors often fail to do in two semesters. Fish's scorn for Strunk, White and "Elements of Style" follows an attack by Geoffrey Pullum, a professor of linguistics and English at the University of Edinburgh.

Pullum disdains the celebration of 50 years "of the overopinionated and underinformed angst. I've spent too much of my scholarly life studying English grammar in a serious way. English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don't-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can't even tell when they've broken their own misbegotten rules."

It's the simplicity and utility of "the little book" that offend the professors -- Strunk and White's preference for the standard to the offbeat. "Vigorous writing is concise," they wrote. "When a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter." And this: "Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome and sometimes nauseating."

Strunk and White hardly set out to produce an F. Scott Fitzgerald, a John Updike or a Charles Portis, but to teach college students (and others who want to tap into the occasional magic of the written word) how to express themselves effectively. Somewhere, an aspiring author of a computer manual might learn a thing or two. The reader, they wrote, is usually lost in a jungle of badly written prose and appreciates all the help he can get.

Strunk and White appreciated the unexpected magic of words, too. Armed with a few rules for good writing and elevated by high purpose, White writes in his updating of Strunk's classic that the writer might pattern himself on the cow in the Robert Louis Stevenson rhyme. "This friendly and commendable animal, you may recall, was 'blown about by all the winds that pass/ and wet with all the showers.' Stevenson, working in a plainer style, said it with felicity, and suddenly one cow, out of so many, received the gift of immortality."


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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