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?

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:

  • Charles’s friend
  • Burns’s poems
  • The witch’s malice

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.

A century on, we at Ragan Communications are reexamining the “Elements of Style” in an occasional series. Yet as we appreciate the book, it’s noteworthy that the first chapter contains guidelines of the sort White admitted were “as whimsical as the choice of a necktie, yet [Strunk] made them feel utterly convincing.”

The comma wars

The Oxford Comma Wars have laid waste the literary landscape, poisoned wells and left the heads of writers and editors impaled on city gates. Despite the billowing smoke and clash of swords outside his office window, Strunk seems unaware that this civil war even exists. Dipping his quill, he writes:

In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.

Thus write,

  • red, white, and blue
  • gold, silver, or copper
  • He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents.

I agree, Professor Strunk! And yet we at Ragan.com and PRDaily.com follow the AP Stylebook, as do most newspapers in the United States. Most publications in the United Kingdom also omit the serial comma, interestingly enough. Therefore I must drop that final, profligate comma.

Yet it is not only because we prefer the Oxford (or serial) comma that fans appreciate Strunk’s doggedness. The AP Stylebook has ballooned to twice the length it was when I started my writing career in the 1980s, with chapters on searching social media for photos, and prescriptions for the use of “color blocking” and “cooking spray.”

Few of us, however, cherish cozy memories of consulting AP’s ever-snowballing list of demands, its incessant nudges in the ribs, its muttered instructions in our ear, from the correct spelling of phyllo to the use of transgender pronouns. The AP wrote its stylebook as if the internet didn’t exist and no journalist possesses a dictionary. Under “parsley,” the AP informs us that “[c]ommon varieties are flat-leaf (Italian) and curly-leaf.” Glad that’s settled!

By contrast, Strunk and White seem to engrave everything that matters about the art of writing on the head of a pin—or so one feels when under their spell.

Pointillist wisdom

The first chapter is full of wisdom on small points that matter deeply to professionals striving to write with clarity. If you’re trying to figure out whether to set off a clause with commas, “The Elements of Style” tersely differentiates restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.

  • Use commas to set off nonrestrictive clauses. They “do not limit or define, they merely add something,” the authors inform us. For example:

In 1769, when Napoleon was born, Corsica had but recently been acquired by France.

The sentence is a combination of two statements that could have been made independently. (Napoleon was born in 1769. At that time, Corsica had but recently been acquired by France.) Therefore, the clause that begins “when” should be bracketed in commas.

  • “Restrictive clauses, by contrast, are not parenthetic and are not set off by commas.”

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

The subject is not all people; it is restricted to a subset: those who don’t mind wandering around the house in their skivvies and eating peanut butter out of the jar while the whole neighborhood watches.

  • Another set of examples illuminates the distinction:

People sitting in the rear couldn’t hear. (restrictive)

Uncle Bert, being slightly deaf, moved forward. (nonrestrictive)

The book is filled with writerly detail, clearly articulated, making it a pleasure to read. The brevity, too, seems ahead of its time.

As reader Bill Spaniel wrote in response to my last piece, “‘Elements of Style’ was essential reading when I studied at the Mizzou School of Journalism (BJ68). In today’s SM world, it is more appropriate than ever. When I tweet, I strive to omit needless words so as to make my tweets pithy.”

Many of us have fond memories of a book we first encountered in college or early in our writing careers. “Strunk and White,” as we tend to call it, is one writing text, however neglected over the years, that will never end up in a PTA book sale donation box.

Reader Virginia Sowers writes, “Your article soon had me walking over to my bookshelf to retrieve my yellow-paged, dog-eared and highlighted third edition (1979) from a dusty lower shelf. As I leaf through, I instantly recognize the almost-forgotten underpinnings of how I edit and write till this day. With gratitude, Strunk and White.”

Please offer your own comments below (Oxford commas optional).

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