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Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Folly of Trusting "Elements of Style"

It is the Elements of Style's 50th anniversary. It seems timely to mention our folly:

People use this little book as a rule book. It is not. Note the title. It calls itself a "style book;" but it is not that either. It was originally written by a college professor to help his students write. That was a century ago. Styles and rules have changed.

Yes, the book is updated. Yes, I think it does lots of good. But even if you love it, try to think differently about it. As an example, this book is probably where the idea that "hopefully" shouldn't be used as an adverb as in "Hopefully my writing friends will read this language book with open eyes and some skepticism--and with a knowledge of the difference between 'rules,' 'style' and 'opinion.'" As you can see, "hopefully" can be used the way White says it can't.

I just did and it isn't "wrong." But do follow my advice in The Frugal Editor. That is, don't use constructions or other language that--however right it is--is believed by large numbers to be incorrect (often because of the Elements of Style) in your query letters.

That's because some agent, publisher, or editor out there will have read Strunk's book and taken every idea in it as a language commandment. You aren't in a poistion to make your point if you want to get published.

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Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits, consults and speaks on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success at Learn more about her other authors' aids at, where writers will find lists and other helps on the Resources for Writers page. She blogs on all things publishing (not just editing!) at her Sharing with Writers blog.

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