Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Elements of Style

Product Details
The Little Book

I may be the only person to chuckle when reading The Elements of Style (List of 10, #3) by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. I also cringe when I realize how many of the rules I have broken; rules that were laid down by Professor Strunk of Cornell in 1918 and edited and revised a bit some 30 years later by White, a former student.

For some reason I have two copies of the book. One is the eleventh printing of the first edition (1965); the other is the third edition (1979). Very little has changed between the two editions except for a couple of updated examples.

Strunk's elementary principles of composition still stand: use the active voice; use definite, specific, concrete language; place the emphatic words of a sentences at the end; and, omit needless words.

His rules of usage never vary: form the possessive singular of nouns by adding 's; do not join independent clauses by a comma; and, place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.

(I have a tendency to throw commas at the page willy-nilly, so a reminder of how they are to really be used is always helpful if not always remembered.)

Mr. White's addition, "An Approach to Style," holds true as well.
Here the writer is advised to write in a way that comes naturally; write with nouns and verbs; use orthodox spelling; avoid fancy words and foreign languages. Be clear. Do not overwrite or overstate. Revise and rewrite.

As to the last one, White advises taking a pair of scissors to a recalcitrant piece of composition to rearrange and stir if needed - this obviously in the days before computers made it so much easier to edit.

Do not be afraid to seize whatever you have written and cut it to ribbons; it can always be restored to its original condition in the morning, if that course seems best. Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is a common occurence in all writing, and among the best writers.

If you would like to sharpen your wits and your writing, you won't go wrong reading what Mr. Strunk called "the little book."

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