Elements of Style vs. Eats, Shoots & Leaves

When you’re looking for writing resources, often the first thing people mention is a little book called The Elements of Style by William Strong & E.B. White. (The book is frequently referred to not with its title, but simply as “Strunk & White.”) It’s a collection of a few grammatical rules and some style rules that Strong, and his later editor White thought everyone should follow if they wanted to write properly.

I’m not the only voice in the wilderness that speaks against this book, but those of us who don’t like it much are certainly in a minority.

It’s not that I think it doesn’t matter that you write grammatically or with proper style — I do. I just don’t think this book is that great at teaching what good style is. There are a few useful tidbits in there, so I still think the book is worth reading. I’m in general agreement, for example, about trying not to overuse the passive voice (e.g. instead of the passive “the field was covered by now,” I’d prefer the more active “snow covered the field”).

But other style books, in my opinion, are more useful. And when it comes to a quick-yet-entertaining summary of good grammar, in my opinion nothing beats Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynn Truss. I have never seen a book that helps you understand commas, apostrophes, other punctuation, and general grammar so thoroughly, while still making it interesting and fun.

Truss and I don’t agree completely; few grammarians do. If you saw my earlier post on the Oxford Comma, you know my opinion about that. Truss’s very book title demonstrates why it’s needed — at least sometimes. As an illustration of how she handles even thorny topics like this with great humour, notice how she remarks,

There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.

So I’d suggest looking in other places for style suggestions, but as a quick resource you want on your desk, Truss’s book is the best.

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3 Comments

Filed under * Punctuation, * Style tips

3 responses to “Elements of Style vs. Eats, Shoots & Leaves

  1. Anonymous

    I totally agree–I read Strunk & White years ago, after hearing about how it was so wonderful because it was short, entertaining, well-written, the be-all and end-all of style manuals…and I just wasn’t impressed. I agreed with him on some things, but an awful lot of it just seemed like personal style.

    But “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”? Yes. Love that book. And it just occurred to me…I wonder if I could make that a required text when I’m a TA next semester. That would be awesome.

  2. Oops. That was me. (100_indecisions on Twitter, too, for what it’s worth.)

  3. What bothered me, too, was that Strunk & White seemed so, I don’t know, hit and miss. Related things were grouped together, yet it wasn’t very thorough. To me it felt more like a grammar trivia book, rather than an organized guide.

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