Strunk & White versus AP style: Punctuation, possessives, pithiness

100 years on, ‘The Elements of Style’ holds sway over generations of writers and editors, despite its sporadic contradictions to the go-to reference for modern journalists. Which do you follow?

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Elements of Style

For a wordsmith returning to William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s “The Elements of Style,” I am struck by its complete assurance about controversies that have led to fisticuffs, chair-throwing and bottles broken over heads in the seedier waterfront writer dives.

In point 1 of section I, “Elementary Rules of Usage,” written by Strunk, the influential sage of the page demands, “Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ’s.”

He offers these examples:

Right off, alert hostages of “The Associated Press Stylebook,” blinking out Morse Code messages during forced video statements, will note that the first two examples fly in the face of the most commonly used journalistic guidebook in the United States. The AP instructs:

“SINGULAR PROPER NAMES ENDING IN S: Use only an apostrophe: Achilles’ heel, Agnes’ book, Ceres’ rites, Descartes’ theories, Dickens’ novels, Euripides’ dramas, Hercules’ labors, Jesus’ life, Jules’ seat, Kansas’ schools, Moses’ law, Socrates’ life, Tennessee Williams’ plays, Xerxes’ armies.

Yet the influence of Strunk and White remains undiminished.

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