The Elements of Style (henceforth, Elements) is a slender book of advice on usage and writing, revised by the admired novelist and essayist E. B. White from a book by his former English professor. White did well to accept Macmillan's suggestion that he should revise and expand his former professor's book for commercial republication: successive editions of the revision sold over ten million copies. Many college-educated Americans revere Elements, swear by it, carry it around with them. It was reissued in in April 2009 to a chorus of approval from famous American literary figures. One fan has published a whole book about its history (Garvey, 2009).
The title of Elements suggests a focus on style, but in fact much of it concerns grammar. The final chapter, ‘An Approach to Style’, opens by characterizing the earlier parts of the book as ‘concerned with what is correct, or acceptable, in the use of English’, and not with ‘style in its broader meaning’; and indeed, Elements is frequently cited as an authority on questions of grammar.
I believe the success of Elements to be one of the worst things to have happened to English language education in America in the past century. The book's style advice, largely vapid and obvious (‘Do not overwrite’; ‘Be clear’), may do little damage; but the numerous statements about grammatical correctness are actually harmful. They are riddled with inaccuracies, uninformed by evidence, and marred by bungled analysis. Elements is a dogmatic bookful of bad usage advice, and the people who rely on it have no idea how badly off-beam its grammatical claims are. In this essay I provide some illustrations, and a review of some of the book's most striking faults.