Tag Archives: Strunk and White

Strunk and White Were Wrong This Time

Can you find the error in this sentence?

Although we thought we had every detail covered, three people’s invitations didn’t arrive in time.

I can’t either. But according to Strunk and White’s classic book The Elements of Style, this sentence is wrong. It should be “three persons’ invitations didn’t arrive in time.”

It’s simple math: “The word people is best not used with words of number, in place of persons. If of “six people” five left went away, how many would be left? Answer: One people.

Who makes the rules of English? The answer is that we do. Not English teachers. Not lexicographers (the people who research words for dictionaries). Not editors.

The people who use English every day are the ones who make the rules. Of course it’s hard to track changes! That’s why you’ll see teenager in one magazine and teen-ager in another one. Or catalogue in one book and catalog in another book.

Strunk and White’s book is a wonderful guide to good writing. But it’s not infallible. And they were wrong about people. Just about every publisher in the world allows usages like “a hundred people” and “fifteen people.”

Strunk and White were free to make up their own rule, of course. But we are just as free to ignore it.

(And – just for the record – I think Strunk and White’s sentence is clumsy. “If of ‘six people,’ five left the room….Gack. Here’s my version: “If there were ‘five people,’ and one left the room….” And I don’t like “is best not used” either. Listen: nobody’s perfect. Not even Strunk and White.)


“Omit Needless Words” – But Not Always

I was in high school when I read Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style for the first time. I was particularly impressed by their famous command to “omit needless words.” For many years – nay, for decades – I relentlessly hunted down unnecessary words and mercilessly deleted them.

Oops! Make that: hunted down unnecessary words. (“Down” is an unnecessary word.)

In recent years my thinking has changed. I’ve started to realize that repetition and wordiness are built into our language and sometimes serve a useful purpose.

Here’s something you instinctively know but may not be aware of: when it comes to language, longer often sounds better. Many writers unconsciously look for ways to lengthen words.

For example, I’ve noticed that more and more people are saying “first dibs” instead of just “dibs,” which has the same meaning. (There’s no such thing as “second dibs,” right?) Most sometimes becomes utmost. We can even use words to make small things smaller: drop becomes a droplet, and the hint becomes the merest hint.

And did you notice that I wrote “more and more people” in the previous paragraph?

While I was planning today’s post, I remembered an incident in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind that illustrates our preference for wordiness. Family and friends have gathered to bury Gerald O’Hara, owner of the Tara plantation and father of Scarlett, the novel’s central character.

Because no Catholic priest is available, neighbor (and Scarlett’s secret heartthrob) Ashley Wilkes conducts the graveside service. He comes to the end of the burial prayers and realizes there’s a problem: the Catholic service is too short.

The eyes of the neighbors were expectantly upon him as they settled themselves in easier positions for a long harangue. They were waiting for him to go on with the service, for it did not occur to any of them that he was at the end of the Catholic prayers. County funerals were always long….The neighbors would have been shocked, aggrieved and indignant, had these brief prayers been all the service over the body of their loved friend, and no one knew this better than Ashley.

Ashley’s solution is to improvise a longer service. He’s familiar with the more wordy Episcopal burial prayers because they are used for slave funerals. No one notices what’s going on except Scarlett’s sister Carreen, a devout Catholic who feels betrayed by what Ashley is doing.

I’ll have more to say about Gone with the Wind in my next post. Right now I’d like to spend a few minutes talking about this issue of unnecessary words. Take a look at this sentence:

Joe rides his bike back and forth to school every day.

If you think there’s no redundancy in this sentence, think again. How many times are we told that there’s one person? Three: Joe, rides, and his. And we’re told twice that Joe is male (his masculine name and the pronoun his).

Telephone companies have done extensive research into the inner workings of our language. It makes sense when you think about it: There’s a fine distinction between good-enough technology (a sound business philosophy) and unnecessarily superior technology (bad for the bottom line).

What the phone research showed (reinforced by our own daily experience) is that we can accurately receive a message even if there’s static on the line and a lot of background noise. There’s so much redundancy in our language that we can miss some semantic units and still figure out the gist of what’s being said.

In my own writing, I sometimes allow an unnecessary word to slip into a sentence (sorry, Strunk and White!). For example:

Betsy fell down and cried.

Cheryl’s loud shrieks alarmed the neighbors.

He pressed the foot pedal again, but nothing happened.

The tree fell to the ground with a loud crash.

An editor might argue for deleting the italicized words because they’re not necessary. (I suspect that newspapers are especially wary of unnecessary words because paper is so costly.) I – on the other hand – would be tempted to let the italicized words stand because they reinforce the meaning of the sentence. And here’s something else to think about: words like down, loud, foot, and ground are about the five senses. They give us something to see or hear – more reinforcement.

Bottom line: Strunk and White notwithstanding, I sometimes allow an unnecessary word or two to remain in a sentence. So…how do you decide which words to keep and which to delete? I like to walk away from a finished piece and go back to it the following morning. Reading what I’ve written with fresh eyes allows me to make thoughtful editing decisions. It’s a practice I heartily recommend.