The Elements of Style manages to condense all the important rules of grammar into a package so small, you could mistake it for a drink coaster. Well, maybe it’s not that small. But small enough to give the impression that it wouldn’t cover enough territory to be worth buying. But it does and it is. That’s why writers have loved it since it was published for mass distribution in 1959.
When Professor William Strunk self-published the original version in 1919, it was even smaller than it is today. E.B. White (of Charlotte’s Web fame) was a student in Strunk’s Cornell University English class at the time, so he had to read The Elements of Style along with the rest of his classmates. After graduating, he promptly forgot about the book. He couldn’t have known then that 38 years later Macmillan would ask him to revise it for the college market and general trade.
A master of economical writing, White used not one word more than was necessary to spruce up Strunk’s original take on grammatical style. And that’s exactly the point of the book; it advocates a lean economy. Thankfully, it also allows for flexibility. The book still counsels to omit needless words and to use concrete, specific language instead of the abstract, but it also gives advice on using colloquialisms and avoiding fancy words. And the glossary alone is worth the price of admission. Especially for those of us (ahem) who can’t seem to remember the names of all the parts of speech.
The book covers a vast array of grammar questions, although White insists in his forward that The Elements of Style isn’t meant to be comprehensive. The topics it covers are too numerous to mention, but here are some:
- Commonly misused words and expressions
- Nouns used as verbs
- Writing in a way that comes naturally to you
- Not taking shortcuts at the cost of clarity
- The number of the subject determines the number of the verb
White’s plainspoken authority intimidated me when I first read the book years ago. It helped me relax, though, when I read the forward in the fourth edition by White’s stepson, Roger Angell. He tells of observing White’s weekly efforts to come up with copy for the “Notes and Comments” page of The New Yorker. Angell said that sometimes after the copy was in the mail from Maine to New York, White would say, “It isn’t good enough. I wish it were better.” Experiencing this fundamental anxiety writers are prone to led him to infuse The Elements of Style with practical, no-nonsense advice. He probably even needed the reminders himself.
Although White died in 1985, his little book is still among a writer’s best friends. This is due in no small part to his understanding of a wordsmith’s plight.
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