The Elements of Style and the Plurilingual ESL Writer’s Dilemma (by John Wayne N. Dela Cruz)

Prologue: I wrote a first draft of this blog way back when the first wave of COVID-19 hit Québec, and I (along with many of you readers, I’m sure) had suddenly found myself sitting on the couch with way too much time on my hands, with way less things on which to spend it…


Attempting to introduce some productivity to my home isolation routine, I decided to re-read a book that I first encountered as an undergraduate in a class on creative non-fiction. The book, titled Elements of Style (Strunk & White, 2000), aims to provide students and writers in English a collection of writing do’s and don’ts in a manner so concise it practices what it preaches. As an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, I enjoyed reading through the first few chapters—the pages after pages of sermons about the most frequent errors that writers in English commit. From dangling adjectival clauses to misused vocabulary to the principle of parallelism, the authors unapologetically lecture the reader that good style comes not from flashy writing riddled with loose, flowery words and unnatural phrasal acrobatics, but from effective writing tightened with brief, precise words and organic phrasal turns. As a plurilingualism researcher however, I agonized over the sprint towards the book’s end stretch, which suddenly felt like a barrage of admonition that a multilingual ESL student might hear from a teacher who champions a native-speaker model for speaking and writing; that is, a teacher who expects their students to speak and write like a monolingual, educated, anglophone (Cook, 1999; 2012).

“Do not use dialect…

Use orthodox spelling…

Avoid foreign languages…

Prefer the standard to the offbeat…”

This can’t be real! I don’t remember hearing these from my creative writing class instructors, and, perhaps, my professor also thought it unnecessary to go over it, given that the class was a room of mostly white, native English speakers. But in retrospect, I now remember experiencing them. I experienced such admonition not only in that class but in almost all of my undergraduate courses, where my papers would be full of comments about being redundant, or using unconventional collocations, or using unorthodox word or spelling choices. During those times, it was easy for me to accept the reality that maybe I was just a bad writer in English, that there was something wrong with my English, and I just wasn’t getting it. But now I know that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

What my professors failed to clarify back then is that they were specifically teaching me the conventions of the standard written English in North America, as well as the formal written genre; that is, the ins and outs of academic writing, or formal creative non-fiction. Instead, they simply told me that the manner by which I was writing in English was bad and wrong, without telling me how or why. Moreover, they failed to recognize that there are such things as World Englishes, and for a lot of multilingual ESL students like me who started learning and using an English outside of North America (in my case in the Philippines), our standard, formal English will be different from the standard, formal Canadian English, and this circumstance does not make their English wrong, or their writing skills bad. Indeed, what Strunk and White (2000) failed to anticipate in their book, which to be fair was last updated some 20 years ago, is the influx of English-speaking and ESL learner immigrants from the global East to anglophone countries such as Canada (Statistics Canada, 2016), and how this would change the linguistic and cultural landscape of English language classrooms everywhere. As such, the plurilingual English learner’s dilemma becomes clear: the student’s plurilingual and pluricultural lived reality is ignored if not also faulted in their monolingual, monocultural classroom, where a potential source of unique and meaningful writing style in English is equated to a failed version of a singular “proper” style.

Just how much of the world’s population speaks English?

And so to my fellow second language educators and researchers I raise a co-occurring dilemma: How can we appropriately render our students’ plurilingual and pluricultural repertoires and lived experiences effectively compatible with the persisting monolingual, native-speaker ideology—masked as the “standard,” “conventional,” “formal,” “correct”—that governs our English language classrooms, where we constantly tell students that there is such a thing as a right and wrong English? Maybe we can’t. And maybe this is because the current paradigm was not designed to welcome and nurture such plurilingual and pluricultural voices. And as such—no maybes here—this current condition must be challenged and changed.


Epilogue: I felt it fitting to (re)conclude this post with an epilogue not only because I opened with a prologue (ha!) but especially because I have since read more on the topic on which I had written above. To clarify the post’s thesis, I wanted to explicitly state that it was not, nor is it still now, my intention to be unnecessarily critical of Strunk and White (2000), or of notions such as teaching “standard” English grammar; I myself teach it to my students. Needless to say, teachers like me have education ministry guidelines to obey and administrators/principals to satisfy. Indeed, this is exactly how I find myself in this dilemma wherein my research can sometimes be at odds with my teaching practice. As such, I wrote the post above to reflect on what Kubota (2020) explains much more clearly as the discrepancy between plurilingualism as theory and as practice in second language (L2) education. That is, while it easy to theorize about what plurilingualism is, means, or does, it is much harder to actually apply it in many contexts including L2 writing and assessment. As a researcher and in-service teacher, this is a constant struggle, and more importantly, a motivation. A motivation to seek ways to engage with critical applied linguistics theory and praxis that makes room for more Englishes in the ESL classroom (which Kubota also discussed in a webinar for the American Association of Applied Linguistics earlier this spring!). After all, as I’ve taught my students, there are more ways than one to be adequately articulate in English.


Strunk, William Jr., & E.B. White. (2000). The Elements of Style, With Revisions, an Introduction, and a Chapter on Writing (4th edition). Pearson.

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