Comparing S & W with Williams

In my blog on first impressions of Strunk & White, I discussed three rules in depth. The first of these rules was to use definite language, which is covered in Williams’ book as well. Unlike S & W though, Williams weaves his ideas of concrete language through many of his overall concepts. Instead of only giving a few examples and “rules” for using concrete language, Williams uses language in many of his concepts, including the use of nominalizations beginning in Chapter 2: Clarity.

 Strunk and White discuss wordiness through calling into questions commonly misused words. Williams does a similar thing by giving style tips about how to form language to avoid wordiness, and eventually gain clarity and grace. Williams gives many more examples (though sometimes TOO many) than S & W. S & W do a good job of giving some specific “rules” on the use and misuse of language, but Williams applies his rules in a way that demonstrates how to apply those rules in our own writing. With the two as a pair, they are even more effective.

 Now for the part that PISSED ME OFF in both books: in S & W’s style guide, the two rules that got on my nerves were (1) to avoid constructing what they called awkward words, and (2) to prefer the standard version of English. Similar concepts were presented in Williams’ last chapter “Usage.” In this chapter Williams describes why people who call Standard English better are wrong, which I agree with, but he says they are wrong in only their approach to why Standard English is better. One example was his comparison of the words “knew” and “knowed.” I understand, one is Standard English, but he goes on to say that those who use the word “knew” are educated, and those who use “knowed” are uneducated. What happened to dialects? Williams describes that language has been pruned to include on the best words and grammar, but if that is true, why do words such as “knowed” remain in dialects?

 Words that are not Standard have function, sometimes extremely complicated and intricate function, in English dialects. Think about the AAVE form to the word “be.” Standard English speakers do not have a simple, direct phrase to express habitual being, but AAVE does. Is “she is always at work during the day” more effective, concise, clear, ect. than “she be at work”?

 So, as you may be able to tell, I have come to appreciate both guides for what they offer, but only with a grain of salt. Being an ESL minor may be the reason that both of these books’ descriptions of Standard English really get under my skin, but those “rules” of Standard English presented by all of the authors make me second guess all of their ideas. I do appreciate S & W’s book for being concise and to the point, and Williams’ book I appreciate for expanding on familiar ideas and making them applicable. With my appreciation though, comes the realization that style guides, in no way, are the final say on what is good writing.



Williams, Joseph. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Print.


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