Tag Archives: Strunk & White

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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Filed under * Punctuation, * Style tips