Strunk and White’s Macho Grammar Club

The sleek, no-frills esthetic of Modernism and the gray-flannel ’50s both influenced the utilitarian mindset that dictates the rules of usage in ‘The Elements of Style.’

07.12.15 4:01 AM ET

“Be clear.” “Omit needless words.” “Do not overwrite.” “Avoid fancy words.” “Use the active voice.” Who can argue with such common sense commandments, especially when they’re delivered with Voice-of-God authority? Certainly not the generations of students, secretaries, working writers, and wannabe Hemingways who’ve feared and revered Strunk and White’s Elements of Style as the Bible of “plain English style,” as E.B. White calls it in his introduction. (Since 1959, when White revised and substantially expanded the brief guide to prose style self-published in 1918 by William Strunk Jr., a professor of English literature at Cornell, Strunk & White, as most of us know it, has sold more than 10 million copies.)

Can it really be coincidence that, smack on the first page, in a note about exceptions to one of his Elementary Rules Of Usage (“Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s..., whatever the final consonant”), Strunk gives as an example, “Moses’ laws”? The Elements of Style, more than another book, has set in stone American ideas about proper usage and, more profoundly, good style. Professor Strunk wrote his little tract as a stout defense of “the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated,” the red-flag word in that sentence being “violated.”

Usage absolutists are the Scalia-esque Originalists of the language-maven set. Their emphasis on “timeless” grammatical truths, in opposition to most linguists’ view of language as a living, changing thing, is at heart conservative; their fulminations about the grammatical violations perpetrated by the masses mask deeper anxieties about moral relativism and social turbulence. (Strunk published Elements in the last year of the Great War, a cataclysm that turned Europe into history’s goriest slaughter bench, fanned the flames of revolution in Russia, and shaped the cynical, disillusioned worldview of Hemingway and his “lost generation,” as Gertrude Stein called them.) For usage purists, the decline of the language portends the fall of the republic. We’re only one misplaced comma away from the barbarians at the gates, my fellow Romans.

“No book is genuinely free from political bias,” George Orwell wrote, in his essay “Why I Write.” “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” The opinion that the canon laws of usage, composition, and style—our unquestioned assumptions about what constitutes “good prose”—have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude. Obviously, it’s easier for you to make out my meaning if the pane you’re peering through isn’t some Baroque fantasy in stained glass. But the Anglo-American article of faith that clarity can only be achieved through words of one syllable and sentences fit for a telegram is pure dogma. The Elements of Style is as ideological, in its bow-tied, wire-rimmed way, as any manifesto.

Strunkian style embraces the cultural logic of the Machine Age, which by 1918 was well underway. The head-whipping speedup of the 20th century, its throttle thrown wide open by faster modes of travel and accelerating social change, soon found poetic expression in the aerodynamic aesthetic known as streamlining: toasters with speedlines, teardrop-shaped prototype cars, cocktail shakers that looked like they could break the sound barrier. Anticipating streamlining, Strunk decrees, “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” Likewise, his golden rule, “omit needless words,” complements the “less is more” ethos of the Bauhaus school of design, another expression of Machine Age Modernism. Optimized for peak efficiency, Strunk’s is a prose for an age of standardized widgets and standardized workers, when the efficiency gospel of F.W. Taylor, father of “scientific management,” was percolating out of the workplace, into the culture at large. “Mass reproduction is aided especially by the reproduction of the masses,” wrote the Marxist cultural critic Walter Benjamin, in 1936. Why not standardize the mass production of prose? “Prefer the standard to the offbeat,” admonishes White, cautioning against “eccentricities in language” in the “Approach to Style” he appended to his 1959 revision. Strunk & White is a child of its times—the early Machine Age, when the Professor first published it, and the gray-flannel ‘50s, when White revised it—in other ways, too. There’s much talk of vigorous prose, “vigor” being a byword in Strunk’s day for cold-shower masculinity of the strenuous, Teddy Roosevelt sort. White juxtaposes the bicep-flexing “toughness” of good writing with the “unwholesome,” sometimes even “nauseating” ickiness of “rich, ornate prose.” “If the sickly sweet word, the overblown phrase are your natural form of expression,” he counsels, “you will have to compensate for it by a show of vigor.” The implication is obvious: if a lean, mean Modernist prose of “plainness, simplicity, orderliness, [and] sincerity” is manly, then a style that rejoices in ornament and complexity and sharpens its wit with the knowing insincerity of irony or camp is unmanly—feminine or, worse yet, sissified. (Pop quiz: Why do we call overwrought language “flowery”? Because flowers recall that unmentionable part of a lady’s anatomy, and the effeminization of language saps it of its potency. Why is purple prose purple? Because purple has been synonymous with foppish unmanliness ever since Oscar Wilde wore mauve gloves to the premiere of Lady Windemere’s Fan.)

White’s equation is at least as old as the Austrian architect Adolf Loos’s 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime.” Crossing social Darwinism with Modernism, Loos argued that “the evolution of culture is synonymous with the elimination of ornament from useful objects.” Unrestrained by the rationalist superego of the Machine Age, the primitive impulses expressed in the urge to ornament drag us down the evolutionary ladder, warned Loos, back to the level of the Papuan who eats his enemies and “tattoos his skin, his boat, his paddles, in short everything he can lay hands on”—a theme White takes up a half-century later, cautioning “young writers” mesmerized by “the beat of new vocabularies, the exciting rhythms” of subcultural slang to beware “the spell of these unsettling drums.”

(Loos wasn’t alone in using the language of social Darwinism to explain the cultural conflict between industrial rationalism, embodied in the form-follows-function aesthetic of Modernism, versus the decadence and romanticism bubbling up in art movements like Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, and the Viennese Secession. Max Nordau got there first in Degeneration (1892), a book-length shudder of revulsion at the “degenerate” art and philosophies of fin-de-siècle Decadents and Aesthetes, Parnassians and diabolists. A doctor as well as a social Darwinist, Nordau saw the Dorian Gray-ish ennui and amorality of bohemianism as both pathological—a psychic disease brought on by modernity—and atavistic, a worrying sign of cultural devolution.)

Yet, just as often as they reached for Darwinian metaphors, Loos and the prophets of Modernism who followed him framed their aesthetic politics in explicitly gendered terms. Loos deplored the hothouse ornamentation of Art Nouveau, with its labial flowers and writhing tendrils, as symptomatic of cultural degeneration. “At the heart of this ideology of sublimation and control was a perspective of sexual rigidity, favoring reason over passion, efficiency over eros, and social order over personal issues of sexuality,” notes Stuart Ewen, in his magisterial study of “the politics of style,” All Consuming Images. “

As some critics of 19th century ornamentation articulated their thoughts, they associated the purposeful efficiency of unfettered industrialism with masculinity. It was the depraved, feminine tendency toward kitsch that inhibited forward development. ... It was only through a stripping away of these female encrustations that a ‘virile’ aesthetic, appropriate to the machine age, could be found.” The Elements of Style is part of that project.

Jacket designers’ attempts to convey the Strunkian aesthetic have reflected the tensions between the text’s insistence on the apolitical nature of its common sense wisdom and the cultural politics of its Modernist, masculinist aesthetic. They’ve also dramatized the difficulty of finding a fitting visual metaphor for the Style of No Style. The pre-1959 editions, ranging from Strunk’s self-published versions, printed in 1918 and ’19 by the Press of W.F. Humphrey in Geneva, New York, to the Harcourt, Brace editions of the ’20s and ’30s—co-authored with the enigmatic Edward A. Tenney, as mysterious a figure to Strunkians as the Umbrella Man is to Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists*—to The Thrift Press Edition published around 1940, are yawningly generic: typefaces only a mechanical engineer could love (Garamond, perhaps?**); cheap, monochromatic covers relieved, in the Harcourt editions, by the colophon—set dead center, in a masterstroke of unimaginativeness. If we overthink things, we can probably make the case for their utilitarian characterlessness as the objective correlative to the impersonal prose Strunk extolled, free from idiosyncrasies, but chances are their blank anonymity has more to do with tight budgets and the grisly truth, in the case of the Humphrey editions, that printers aren’t designers.

With the 1959 Macmillan edition made famous by White, Elements finally gets the cover it deserves, designed by the versatile team of Jack and Robert Strimban, who could do Miró-esque whimsy or sleek corporate Modernism, as the job required. The gold-bullion background tells us that Strunk & White is the gold standard when it comes to usage and style. The lightly weighted font (again, some variation on Garamond, I think) invokes the elegant economy of Roman square capitals, their serifs chiseled in marble—visual shorthand for the classical aesthetic of clarity and concision the authors espouse, and for the ageless authority of their edicts. The alternating black and white lines of type, justified with T-square precision, herald a world of black-or-white absolutes, where exactitude is rectitude. Even the word “Elements” has the ring of universal truth, implying that you hold in your hands a kind of Periodic Table of Plain English Style.

But wait! What’s this? Strunk’s name is flush right, ragged left, whereas the coverlines beneath it (“With revisions,” etc.) are left-aligned. And the word “elements” has stepped out of alignment with the rest of the title, a nonconformist refusing to march in parade drill. Something’s amiss in the Professor’s perfectly ordered world. Maybe it’s the inescapable realization that individual style is the sum of a writer’s idiosyncrasies, the unique choices that set her voice apart from Strunk’s assembly-line ideal. A Style of No Style is a contradiction in terms: like the Invisible Man without his clothes, style shorn of the elements that give it shape—adjectives and adverbs, similes and metaphors, “fancy words” that aren’t of Anglo-Saxon descent, suspiciously foreign phrases, “eccentricities” of every sort—ceases to be style at all.

Which is why designing a cover that conveys Strunk and White’s aesthetic is such a thankless task. None of the designers who followed the Strimbans fared better, and most flopped, thwarted by the fundamental unrepresentability of the book’s subject. Dyspeptic color combinations (salmon and navy blue; mint-jelly green and claret red on a pewter background) and typographic trainwrecks that jumble various, not exactly compatible faces make their efforts wince-inducing, although I will confess to a weakness for Macmillan’s 1972 attempt to update Elements for the smiley-face decade, its title streaking, in 3-D Garamond, across the cloudless blue. It looks as if it could do the Bump with a copy of R.D. Laing’s Knots. Recently, the public-domain publishers springing up like toadstools all over Amazon have reprinted Strunk’s pre-White text, generally with slapdash cover designs, though I like the cacophony of letters in clashing typefaces on Grammar Inc.’s 2015 edition, a visual Babel that would surely have nettled that “most inflexible and choosy of men,” as White calls the Professor in his introduction to Elements

“Good prose is like a windowpane,” Orwell wrote. But his—and Strunk and White’s—dream of a prose so crystalline it lets us behold the truth of things unmediated, rather than through the glass of language, darkly, is really a religious yearning disguised as writerly wisdom. It’s a dream of time-traveling back to Eden and speaking the Adamic language in which the signifier and the signified, representation and reality are one. The trouble, of course, is that style, whatever its elements, is artifice, and artifice is authenticity’s foe.

* Tenney, a fellow professor of English at Cornell, lent a hand with the revising of the 1935 edition, which was published as The Elements and Practice of Composition. Why the book appeared under a different title—heresy!—and why Tenney assisted with the revisions is, as medieval theologians liked to say, A Mystery. Jerry Morris, a devout Strunkian who collects editions of Elements, speculates on his blog Biblio Researching that “Tenney was responsible for the changes because Strunk [a Shakespeare scholar] was in Hollywood from July 1935 to June 1936 as the technical adviser for MGM's Romeo and Juliet, directed by George Cukor.” Strunk & Tenney wasn’t nearly as popular as the original text, Morris notes; by 1940, the book was again appearing under Strunk’s name only, its original title restored.

** I’m indebted to Allen Crawford, designer and illustrator of the award-winning Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself for offering his wisdom on the question of typefaces.