The Elements of Style – Strunk & White

Brief digression: a BIG thank you to everyone who responded to Monday’s post! Beta readers are going to make Paying Melpomene’s Price more accessible, clearer, and more fun to read. To those of you on the fence: join in the fun! There’s no commitment: do as little or as much as you please! I’m looking for feedback, comments, suggestions… It’s good to be writing for an audience again; for too long I’ve been writing for myself. Even knowing that the text will be beta read forces me to think more in terms of the reader. That is a good thing. And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White is the shortest and most frequently recommended of all styleguides. The body of the text weighs in at 85 pages. With the forward, introduction, glossary, afterword, and index, it is still a lean 123 pages. I have been meaning to read it for a long time. They say classics are books that everyone wishes they have read but no one wants to read. Well, The Elements of Style is definitely a classic. I am glad to have finally read it. I should have done so earlier. Better late than never.

Why would such a short book require two authors? It turns out that Strunk (1869-1946) was an English professor at Cornell. He wrote The Elements of Style to distribute to students. White was one of Strunk’s students in 1919. In 1956, seeing a need for such a book, White published it. He expanded Strunk’s original 43 pages and added an introduction and a concluding chapter (‘An Approach to Style’). That is the reason the book has two authors.

Back Blurb

Making ‘every word tell’ is what The Elements of Style is all about. This famous manual, now in a fourth edition, has conveyed the principles of plain English style to millions of readers. It is probably the only style manual ever to appear on the best seller lists.

Whether you write letters, term papers, or novels, the ‘little book’, as it has come to be called, can help you communicate more effectively. It will show you how to cut deadwood out of your sentences; enliven your prose with the active voice; put statements in a positive form; approach style by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.

The original ‘little’ book was written by William Strunk, Jr., late professor of English at Cornell, for use by his students. Years later, one of the most illustrious of those students, E.B. White, prepared an edition of the book for the general public, revising the original and contributing a final chapter of his own that sought to lead the reader beyond mere correctness toward distinction in English style.

This Fourth Edition includes a new glossary of grammatical terms. In addition, the book has been revised to update many of the references in examples and to reflect contemporary usage. These changes help make the ‘little’ book even more accessible to new generations of readers and writers.

The Eureka Moment

Believe it or not, it wasn’t what Strunk had to say but what White had to say in the final chapter that was the eureka moment. What Strunk lays out in the main body of the text is good. For example, one thing that’s always been on my mind is the difference between that and which. Here is how Strunk clarifies the difference between the two:

That is the the defining, or restrictive, pronoun, which the non defining, or nonrestrictive.

The lawn mower that is broken is in the garage. (Tells which one)

The lawn mower, which is broken, is in the garage. (Adds a fact about the only mower in question.)

The use of which for that is common in written and spoken language (‘Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass’.) Occasionally which seems preferable to that, as in the sentence from the Bible. But it would be a convenience to all if these two pronouns were used with precision. Careful writers, watchful for small conveniences, go which-hunting, remove the defining whiches, and by so doing improve their work.

That is pretty good, but not the eureka moment. The eureka moment is in White’s final chapter on style:

With some writers, style not only reveals the spirit of the man but reveals his identity, as surely as would his fingerprints. Here, following, are two brief passages from the works of two American novelists. The subject in each case is languor. In both, the words used are ordinary, and there is nothing eccentric about the construction.

He did not still fell weak, he was merely luxuriating in that supremely gutful lassitude of convalescence in which time, hurry, doing, did not exist, the accumulating seconds and minutes and hours to which in its well state the body is slave both waking and sleeping, now reversed and time now the lip-server and mendicant to the body’s pleasure instead of the body thrall to time’s headlong course

Manuel drank his brandy. He felt sleepy himself. It was too hot to go out into the town. Besides there was nothing to do. He wanted to see Zurito. He would go to sleep while he waited.

Anyone acquainted with Faulkner and Hemingway will have recognized them in these passages and perceived which is which. How different are their languors!

Or take two American poets, stopping at evening. One stops by woods, the other by laughing flesh.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

I have perceived that to be with those I like is enough,

To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,

To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing,

laughing flesh is enough…

Because of the characteristic styles, there is little question about identity here, and if the situations were revered, with Whitman stopping by woods and Frost by laughing flesh (not one of his regularly scheduled stops), the reader would know who was who.

It dawned on me: no one would mistake Faulkner for Hemingway or Frost for Whitman. In the above passages, there is nothing bombastic in the style: in Hemingway’s case it is even sort of mundane (e.g. ‘Besides there was nothing to do. He wanted to see Zurito’). But yet they are all great writers. The eureka moment for me was that style does not come from trying to do something fancy. Style comes from within. It is in every word we write.

Style is sort of like clothing. One can wear a suit jacket or a t-shirt. One can wear a dress or a blouse. There is style in both. Those with the best style don’t do anything pretentious with clothing. They wear clothing that fits the body. Not too tight, not too loose. Colour is nice. But not too bright and not too subdued. They choose colours to fit the occasion. There are winter colours and summer colours. There is no use in making clothing bombastic, loud, or pretentious: that is not style. Style comes from within. It is probably the way we carry ourselves in the clothing. Words are sort of like that: they are the things we dress up our thoughts with.

What’s the takeaway from all this? First, read The Elements of Style. It is a nice short book. The way books ought to be. Second. When writing, don’t worry about style. It’s everywhere. It’s part of you. It is you. You don’t have to think about style to write with style. But do think about finding the words that fit just as you would find clothes that fit. And by fit I mean both the body and the occasion. Using a foreign word, for example, is like wearing the latest Spanish cut. And so on.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I am Doing Melpomene’s Work in style.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.