Strunk and White channel Keynes and Hayek

by Russ Roberts on December 18, 2011

in Film


Jake Heller decided a few months ago to “do for journalism nerds what the Keynes vs. Hayek video did for econ nerds, by transforming ‘The Elements of Style’ into a rap video.” He told me about the process by email (below), but first here’s the result:



Flattered by the imitation and as a big fan of The Elements of Style, happy to see it get some attention.

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Jeff December 18, 2011 at 2:11 am

Beyond message boards, blog posts and irritating friends with Facebook status updates I’m not a writer at all. But this video got me interested in checking out The Elements of Style. 6 bucks on Amazon. It annoys me that it’s not available on Kindle though.

For anyone who’s read it, would you recommend it to someone who doesn’t write but is interested in how to write well? If not, oh well, I only spent 6 bucks.

Ubiquitous December 18, 2011 at 2:21 am

For anyone who’s read it, would you recommend it to someone who doesn’t write but is interested in how to write well?

Definitely yes. It’s necessary reading for someone who wants to write well.

But keep in mind my earlier post: “The Elements of Style” is a style manual, not a grammar primer. “Style” and “grammar” are two entirely different subjects, with the latter being the more fundamental and in many ways, the more important of the two.

Ubiquitous December 18, 2011 at 2:11 am


I’m also a fan of The Elements of Style, but with a slight proviso:

The book assumes — perhaps correctly when it first appeared — that the reader is already knowledgeable about basic grammar (parts of speech, rules of syntax). It’s a concise style guide, not a rigorous grammar primer.

As part of the same series of titles, there is The Elements of Grammar, which, however, is not nearly as good as the older title on style.

Jon Murphy December 18, 2011 at 8:44 am

That was greatness entertaining.

Jon Murphy December 18, 2011 at 8:45 am


Linda Seebach December 18, 2011 at 10:33 am

Strunk & White is notorious among linguists for offering advice so bad that even its own authors disregard it. Geoff Pullum (a co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) wrote, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, “English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can’t even tell when they’ve broken their own misbegotten rules.” His delightful evisceration is at
If you want a guide to writing style, Joseph Williams’ books are excellent.

Thomas Bayes December 18, 2011 at 10:50 am

I understand why Pullum is angry:

Pullum’s book costs about $220 for 1860 pages and is currently #531,102 in the Amazon Best Sellers.

S&W costs $9.42 for 105 pages and is currently #1,493 in the Amazon Best Sellers (#9 in Words & Language, #12 in Writing, #42 in Education).

Needless words are expensive.

S&W fans should spend another $9.59 for Zinsser’s On Writing Well:

Alan Gunn December 18, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Pullum’s book is scholarly, not popular, and it isn’t a guide to writing. For books that do, he recommends Joseph Williams, not his own book. Furthermore, he’s dead right about S&W, which is junk. Just one of many illustrations: They give four sentences as examples of how awful the passive voice is. Three of those four sentences do not use the passive voice.

Ubiquitous December 18, 2011 at 9:35 pm

They give four sentences as examples of how awful the passive voice is. Three of those four sentences do not use the passive voice.

Wrong. I have S&W right in front of me. On page 19 of the 3rd edition, the context of their discussion (carried over from the last paragraph on page 18) is how sentences, even in the active voice, can be further improved by using a transitive verb instead of a so-called neuter verb (“is”, “were”, etc.). To illustrate such use of transitive verbs, S&W give four examples: three in the active voice (but which use no transitive verbs) and one in the passive (which, by definition, is intransitive).

This is very typical of criticisms of S&W and of prescriptive grammarians in general. Critics don’t read them carefully and proceed to attribute incompetence on their part when it was really incompetence on the part of the critics.

RandomReal[] December 18, 2011 at 5:20 pm

I completely agree with Linda Seebach. To me, S&W’s Elements is analogous to “99 tips to a better golf game” by Famous Golfer. I have seen few people improve their golf game by following such advice. Similarly, whenever I tried to apply S&W’s advice to my writing, it never improved and often deteriorated. The problem for me was too many don’ts. When I applied their piecemeal advice, my result was choppy, contorted prose — hardly an improvement.

I also second Joseph Williams’ books. Being a scientist, writing clearly with coherence is a necessity for favorable reviews of manuscript submissions and grant proposals. I learned more from Williams’ “Style: towards clarity and grace” than 16+ years of writing instruction, a job unfairly foisted upon English teachers. I should also note that this is a book that you must work through section by section, writing and editing as you go. It took me about half a year to work through, but the time spent was well worth it.

If you want a quick read and highly entertaining book on writing, Zinsser’s On Writing Well is great. Oh yea, Joseph Williams’ books can also be bought for less than $10.

g-dub December 18, 2011 at 5:54 pm

When not being my usual lame and lazy self, I use Lynn Troyka’s Concise Handbook. I don’t know how the experts view Troyka’s little handbook. English has always been a deep mystery to me, yet Troyka’s text is something I could make sense of.

Ubiquitous December 18, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Geoff Pullum has been wrong on many things, the most notorious of which being his silly arguments in “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.” Pullum, and other pugnacious linguists such as Geoffrey Nunberg, were definitively trounced in “Language & Human Nature” by grammarian Mark Halpern. See:

In any case, Strunk & White’s manual is a slim guide (from a prescriptive grammar point of view) on the subject of style; Pullum’s book is a pandect (from a descriptive linguistics point of view) on grammar. They are different subjects. A student will certainly not receive any practical advice on incorporating into his writing the traditional rhetorical virtues of clarity, strength and elegance from reading anything by Pullum.

SaulOhio December 18, 2011 at 10:51 am

“New mustaches”.

Invisible Backhand December 18, 2011 at 12:27 pm

I think it’s important to mention, in this season of giving, that you can give to Russ Roberts and friends so they can continue to dine at the Four Seasons.

Tom McCarthy December 18, 2011 at 1:30 pm

Irritable Bowel, you’re analytical skills just aren’t what they should be. However, I think it is important to note that you should pay all of your federal income taxes plus everything else that you earn and have saved to the US Treasury so that Barak and Michelle can continue dine in luxury and style anywhere they are, especially when they are on their 152nd vacation, this time in Hawaii.

Michael Mace December 18, 2011 at 5:04 pm

My prediction for 2012: rap videos emerge for every academic discipline.

Ubiquitous December 18, 2011 at 8:27 pm

An excellent companion piece to Strunk & White is Richard Lanham’s book on style and editing entitled “Revising Prose.”

A professor of English at UCLA, Lanham realized that there was little time to perform a complete overhaul on students’ writing habits, so he developed an emergency protocol that they could follow based on the medical idea of triage, which he calls the “paramedic method.” See:

brotio December 20, 2011 at 12:37 am

I have opened a xanga account and will forward our hosts postings there and allow comments there

I think that you will have to create a xanga account in order to comment. If this is true, it will prevent the name-hijacking that our Leftist, idiot trolls are so fond of. I do not intend to forbid comments because of name-calling, and will not forbid Yasafi, Gil, DK, GregG, or any of the other non-trolls from commenting. I will reserve the right to remove comments that violate the obscenity requirements our hosts have asked of us here.

Thanks all, and I hope this will allow us to continue our dialogues until our hosts decide how comments will be handled here.

Floccina December 21, 2011 at 10:01 am

That is education. School is for credentials.

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