Fowler V. Strunk&White

A reader wrote to asked how Fowler compared to Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. I wrote back cavalierly saying that Fowler was fun—implying that S&W was not. That was unfair because I tend to find any grammar book fun. I am not the kind of man who hunts for grammatical errors in his everyday life. Nor do I think grammar is going to hell today. But grammar books are fun because they contain lots of examples of the language at its silliest and most brutal. The following is an example from S&W:

New York’s first commercial human-sperm bank opened Friday with semen samples from eighteen men frozen in a stainless steel tank.

This is very funny in the context of grammatical analysis. But would any reader be confused and think that it was the eighteen men rather than the semen samples that were frozen? No. Is the rewrite of the sentence better? Perhaps. The only thing that may be preferable is that it cannot be scorned by pedants (and I welcome their scorn):

New York’s first commercial human-sperm bank opened Friday when semen samples were taken from eighteen men. The samples were then frozen and stored in a stainless steel tank.

The Difference

The fundamental difference between the two books is that S&W is a how-to manual and Fowler is a reference. S&W is akin to Janis Bell’s excellent Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences. Either of these two will improve one’s writing. Fowler, not so much. The first edition of Fowler runs 742 pages, and is written in dictionary form. (No surprise there!) There is little indication in it of just what is important and what is not. However, when I run into a grammar problem, the first book I reach for is Fowler because it is the most likely to provide me with guidance—not answers, guidance. S&W provides answers to common questions.

A Question of Editions

There is a tendency for people to want the first editions of both these books. I think the idea is that the first editions are not polluted by all the subsequent changes in the language—as if English were perfect when these books were first written. I have shared in this kind of foolishness, but I have changed. Just as the language. For writing purposes, you should use the most recent editions. Those updating these books take great care with them and are loath to make changes. When they do so, they have cause. If you feel the need of such books (as I do—constantly) you know far less than they.

The Fiftieth Anniversary Edition of S&ampW contains what I consider the hopelessly archaic admonition against using “hopefully” to mean “it is hoped.” I’m sure (but I haven’t checked) that this entry is from the first edition. This is an example of how after 50 years, during which time the old “hopefully” has been drowned out by the new, editors still yield to the masters.

So why do I own the first edition of Fowler? Because I like his sense of humor, and read it for pleasure. I do not use it as a reference.

The Best Part

The part of S&W that is most worth reading is the introduction to “Chapter V: An Approach to Style.” If these four pages do not inspiring you, you are not a writer. Of the 21 reminders that follow: I find them all either obvious or dubious. They are nonetheless worth a read.

Good Writing

If I had but one book to depend upon for writing, I would pick neither of these. A good dictionary is far more important. I consult the dictionary many times each day. It answers the question I usually have: “Is this the word I really mean?” Fowler is worth having for reference. S&W is worth reading at least once. But all grammar books are useless unless the reader understands that they (try to) explain the language; they never define it. Good reading is the surest path to good writing. I’m working on it. We all are.

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