Has Strunk and White Struck Out of Writing Instruction?

Language Arts

Has Strunk and White Struck Out of Writing Instruction?

By Tina Nazerian     Oct 25, 2017

Has Strunk and White Struck Out of Writing Instruction?

This article is part of the guide: Putting It Into Words: The Future of Writing Instruction.

Ann Hall wishes people would return to William Strunk and E.B. White’s “The Elements of Style.”

Currently, she’s a professor in the comparative humanities department at the University of Louisville. She recommends Strunk and White to her undergraduate students, and asks her dissertation students to use it. She also uses Strunk and White indirectly, when she makes on students’ papers and during class discussions.

However, not everyone feels the same about the famous (or in some people’s opinion, infamous) writing style guide, which is over 50 years old. Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2009, Geoffrey K. Pullum, a professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, said the book’s advice “ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense,” and called both of its authors “grammatical incompetents.” He wrote that he wouldn’t “be celebrating” what was then the guide’s 50th anniversary.

Hall, on the other hand, thinks that Strunk and White puts statements in “positive form” and gives “little tricks of the trade that don’t demand that you know what a gerund or a participle is.”

But Hall does think that Strunk and White has been replaced. She thinks it’s “kind of seen as old-fashioned,” and most college and university campuses would go with composition and writing textbooks such as “The Little Seagull Handbook,” “The Everyday Writer” or “The Writer’s Reference.”

In the sixteen years she’s taught high school English at Wilmington High School in Wilmington, Massachusetts, Lisa Desberg has never used Strunk and White. She says her school is literature-based—grammar is not “the essence” of English classes.

“Grammar is not something that our district tends to purchase,” she says. “We tend to create our own powerpoints and worksheets based on the Common Core.”

Desberg doesn’t think the book’s age makes it irrelevant. But she does mention that these days, “a little paperback book” may not be how students “learn grammar organically.” She explains, “For example, I try to naturally incorporate [grammar] based on errors I’m seeing in their writing...in an everyday lesson, rather than, ‘Ok now, we’re going to have a separate lesson or now you’re going to open up a separate book.’”

Shelley Blanton-Stroud teaches composition classes at Sacramento State. When she was a college student, she hated Strunk and White.

“It just seemed like a collection of stupid rules,” she says.

When she became a composition teacher in the late 1980s, she never used or assigned Strunk and White for “a lot of reasons,” including that she thought it was “far too prescriptive.” She believed, and still believes, that the most important thing writing instructors do is prepare students to enter the “national or social conversation.” Dictating rules to them, she thought, would mean the students would get so invested on memorizing them that they would never think about what they thought or how to best express it.

But about ten years ago, she was invited to do some work for the California Independent System Operator, an organization that manages electricity utilities in the state. The people in that setting were often PhDs in economics, engineer or computer science, and there were also departments full of attorneys. They understood certain topics perfectly, but struggled with making others understand them.

“And that’s when a light came on for me that related back to Strunk and White, and certainly related back to my own classroom instruction, because it’s true for students too,” Blanton-Stroud says. “If the most important thing is for a writing teacher to help her students step into this social conversation, of course you have to deal with helping them develop ideas that are relevant, but also, you have to deal with the voice they use, the tactics the use, so that people pay attention to their ideas.”

Though she still doesn’t assign it as required reading, Blanton-Stroud refers to parts of Strunk and White in her teaching. She views it as a suggested style guide for how to write in an engaging voice.

Alice Chen, an eighth grade language arts teacher and technology coach at Suzanne Middle School in Walnut, California does not use Strunk and White in the classroom. But she says it offers some helpful tips and different ways to construct sentences, which are common grammar rules.

Chen says when people get into their teaching positions, they tend to use the textbooks that are available to them, and Strunk and White was not a resource that was made available to her. And what’s more, over the years, she’s moved away from teaching grammar “straight out of a book.” She says there are many different tools out there for teaching grammar. One of her favorites is using Brain Pop videos, which she uses in conjunction with writing assignments. She says they do a great job of giving a grammar in “small bites.”

“We’re talking videos at about four minutes long, which is just really perfect for kids, and then they come with some really great review quizzes; you can also create your own,” she says.

Chen also incorporates Grammarly and the Hemingway App in her lessons. Her students use Grammarly to pinpoint simple grammar mistakes, and after those are picked up, they turn to the Hemingway App, which highlights some areas they can focus on. With the Hemingway App, she wants her students to understand whether a sentence is highlighted because it is awkward and has poor grammar, or because it is complex. She tells her students that the algorithm may not necessarily be one hundred percent accurate—the more complex a sentence is, the more it will be highlighted. And that doesn’t necessarily mean the sentence is grammatically incorrect.

“I said you have to be the ultimate deciding factor, don’t just blindly accept what the computer tells you,” Chen says.

But Hall sees problems with these types of online grammar tools. She wonders what algorithms the Hemingway App uses to determine a sentence is too dense. She points out that getting rid of sentences that are too dense would mean getting rid of writers like Jacques Derrida and Virginia Woolf.

As for Grammarly, Hall supposes it’s a useful tool for someone who’s in business and wants to just double check her grammar. But she does worry that it “sort of levels everyone down to one kind of style.” Seeing different writing styles, she says, make people think differently.

“You’ve got somebody who’s maybe not a great writer, and you just want to get some coherence in there — I think they’re useful,” she says. “But again, the trouble is do these things help you become independent of them, or do you always have to go back to Grammarly?”

Strunk and White gives people rules, but doesn’t legislate writing, which Hall thinks “these machines” are doing. She gives an example of a novice writer who might type in a sentence that’s weak grammatically, or has grammatical errors. Grammarly, she says, would correct it for the writer, but it may not reflect what the novice writer might actually want to say.

Several years ago, Cathlina Bergman and her brother, Daniel Bergman, wrote a journal article for the 50th anniversary of The Elements of Style. They wrote that they “encourage everyone to find a copy” of the book and “read all of it,” as the “wealth of information” it contains is beneficial to writers and teachers, and ultimately their “readers and students.”

While she doesn’t use Strunk and White as a textbook in her English classes at Newton High School in Newton, Kansas, she uses some of the principles in the class. However, she still thinks Strunk and White is relevant today, even with the advent of digital grammar tools. But will she assign Strunk and White in the future? She thinks so, especially now that her school is a one-to-one school (9th-12th graders all have their own individual Chromebooks).

“I think it would be interesting for them to be able to have it on their one-to-one devices as a reference guide so we can refer back to that together,” she says.

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