Dec 082006

The first piece of advice in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style concerns punctuation — the proper use of the apostrophe. I learn that I must write “Charles’s execution,” but “Jesus’ crucifixion.” Already my prose is improving, though not at the rate I would like.

Items 2 through 8 also concern punctuation. I learn to balance my commas, and to handle colons, semi-colons, and em-dashes with aplomb.

Punctuation is important. Its abuse can be a source of unintentional hilarity. (“I would like to thank my parents, God and Ayn Rand.”) Some would go so far as to regard it as an index to character. On its wings a marginally literate Englishwoman has soared to international celebrity. But The Elements of Style purports to be a guide to writing English. A badly punctuated essay can be corrected in minutes. A badly written essay can probably never be corrected at all.

Strunk and White expand their range in Items 9 and 10, which advise, respectively, that subject and verb agree in number and that pronouns be proper case. This is unexceptionable: as most of these errors derive from being unable to determine the subject or the case, it is also useless. With a final warning against dangling modifiers, buttressed by several amusing, if unlikely, examples (“Wondering irresolutely what to do next, the clock struck twelve.”), Strunk and White conclude their “Rules of Usage” and move on to “Principles of Composition.”

There are eleven of these:

1. Choose a suitable design and hold to it.
2. Make the paragraph the unit of composition.
3. Use the active voice.
4. Put statements in positive form.
5. Use definite, specific, concrete language.
6. Omit needless words.
7. Avoid a succession of loose sentences.
8. Express coordinate ideas in similar form.
9. Keep related words together.
10. In summaries, keep to one tense.
11. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

A strange mix of the anodyne, the obvious, and the risible. Omitting needless words is a fine idea, certainly better than adding them. (And how much better to choose a suitable design than an unsuitable one!) To judge from White’s introduction, it appears to have been a particular favorite of Strunk’s:

In the days when I was sitting in [Strunk’s] class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself — a man left with nothing more to say and yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had outdistanced the clock. Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times. When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, “Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”

Willy Three Times, with so many minutes to spare, might have mentioned, in order of increasing importance, omitting needless sentences, omitting needless paragraphs, omitting needless chapters, and omitting needless books of advice. He might have touched on how to judge what is needless, which is where the trouble lies. But this would be difficult to do in “a hortatory essay…. of sixty-three words.”

The cabal of linguistics professors at Language Log likes to laugh at Strunk and White. They go especially hard on using the active voice and omitting needless words. Sometimes they lose their cool. A “vile collation of stupid advice and false claims about grammar”? Stupid and false perhaps, but vile? Professor overboard!

At any rate, the merits of the particular principles are mostly beside the point. The list reminds me of the to-do lists I make periodically, which include items like “learn Spanish” and “blog more often,” and items like “take out the trash” and “pick up the dry cleaning.” I somehow never get around to blogging more often or learning Spanish. The Strunk and White reader will never get around to choosing, and holding to, a suitable design either — not that the book would aid him if he did.

The hyphen, parenthesis, quotation mark, and exclamation point — apparently the red-headed stepchildren of punctuation — are relegated to Section Three, “A Few Matters of Form,” along with a few desultory bits of advice about dates, titles, margins, headings, and syllabification that must have fit nowhere else. The Elements is not, shall we say, rigidly organized. What did I read somewhere about choosing and holding to a suitable design?

Section Four, “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused,” parades the usual suspects alphabetically: aggravate vs. irritate, irregardless, nauseous vs. nauseated, try to vs. try and, and so on. Such lists have historical interest at best. Strunk’s original, which included cranks like studentry for student body and forcible for forceful, might have made mildly diverting reading. But White, and subsequent editors (the franchise has fallen to his stepson and fellow New Yorker icon, Roger Angell), felt obliged to keep things current, so the section now reads like a transcript of Patricia T. O’Connor’s NPR show. Ambrose Bierce’s little book, Write It Right, is the same kind of collection, with two advantages over Strunk and White. Bierce is wittier; and he had only one edition to prepare. It is amusing to read his objections to “conservative estimate,” because “having been found to have several meanings, conservative seems to be thought to mean anything”; or to “United States” as a singular noun, because “grammar has not a speaking acquaintance with politics, and patriotic pride is not schoolmaster to syntax.” It is edifying to learn that sideburns, in 1909, was still considered a vulgarism for burnsides.

Although Bierce’s book and Strunk’s original were almost exactly contemporary, they sometimes differ, and where they do Bierce always wins on points. For Bierce — and for me, and for Webster’s 2ndgratuitous means “without cost,” while for Strunk and White it means “unwarranted.” Strunk and White allow clever, in the sense of good-natured, to apply to horses, though not to people; Bierce says that “in this sense the word was once in general use in the United States, but is now seldom heard and life here is less insupportable.”

With Section Four Strunk’s contribution ends. For the first edition White added Section Five, “An Approach to Style,” in an effort not to shortchange his publisher. He begins by asserting that “style is something of a mystery,” which does not stop him from going on for another twenty pages in an attempt to unravel it. He takes as his text the first sentence of Common Sense: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Here we have eight short, easy words, forming a simple declarative sentence. The sentence contains no flashy ingredient such as “Damn the torpedoes!” and the words, as you see, are ordinary. Yet in that arrangement they have shown great durability; the sentence is now almost into its third century. Now compare a few variations:

Times like these try men’s souls.
How trying it is to live in these times!
These are trying times for men’s souls.
Soulwise, these are trying times.

It seems unlikely that Thomas Paine could have made his sentiment stick if he had couched it in any of these forms. But why not? No fault of grammar can be detected in them, and in every case the meaning is clear. Each version is correct, and each, for some reason that we can’t readily put our finger on, is marked for oblivion. We could, of course, talk about “rhythm” and “cadence,” but the talk would be vague and unconvincing.

Is this really so mysterious? A cursory consideration of the alternatives immediately removes the second, which sounds personal and petulant, as if Paine were short next month’s rent; and the fourth, with its grisly “soulwise.” The original is a perfect line of iambic tetrameter, with the first foot inverted — a common pattern in English poetry. None of the alternatives, except the hopeless fourth, scan naturally. Paine manages the buzzing sibilants brilliantly, bookending the first half of the line with “these” and “times” to produce a heavy caesura, and placing “men’s” next to “souls” to lengthen, and thus emphasize, the final foot. Strunk, who wrote a book about English meter, could have explained this easily. Unfortunately when White wrote this passage Strunk had been dead for a decade.

White continues with twenty-one more rules, which would be classed, if the book were properly organized, with Strunk’s Principles of Composition, and suffer from most of the same defects. I, for one, find it especially helpful to be told to be clear, to write naturally, not to overwrite or overstate, and not to explain too much. Before White, I used to try to be obscure, write unnaturally and floridly, exaggerate, and beat every point into the ground. White’s advice to write with nouns and verbs I will leave to Language Log. An admonition, contradicting the spirit of the previous eighty-four pages, that “style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition” brings The Elements of Style to a merciful close.

This sorry hash has become a modern American classic, selling more than ten million copies. High schools require it. Parents send their children off to college with a copy packed in the luggage. People who ought to know better continue to recommend it, whether out of ignorance or deference is difficult to say. My mother likes it, and she hates everything but Middlemarch.

The Elements of Style, at its birth, had the field to itself. Today writing guides litter the aisles at Barnes & Noble, largely because of its success; but in 1959, when Macmillan commissioned White to whip it up, there was Fowler, who was scholarly and British, and very little else. White was also famous, which is how Americans prefer their how-to authors. Famous mathematicians write primers on mathematics, and famous physicists write primers on physics, but for some reason primers on writing are traditionally consigned to obscurities. Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas, who wrote Clear and Simple as the Truth, the best style book I know, are distinguished academics, but you’ve never heard of them.

The Elements of Style owes its success, above all, to its cramped and pedantic outlook. Strunk and White treat writing from the point of view of the copy editor, as if there were nothing that a vigorous line edit couldn’t fix. In fact there is very little that a vigorous line edit can fix. It certainly would not fix The Elements of Style.

I know only two infallible rules for writing well. First, read good writing: take it apart to see how it works, where it succeeds and fails, and then imitate it as best you can. Who would produce must first consume. (Faulkner recommends reading bad writing as well, but I have tried reading Faulkner, and it did me no good.) Second, write exactly what you think. Certain authors, like Céline and Henry Miller, have survived despite prose that lacks every virtue but this one. Most of us suppress our best material, in the interest of job security or domestic tranquility or not being forced to flee the country.

These rules, in guidebook form, would not sell ten thousand copies, let alone ten million. They require diligence, persistence, and courage to follow. Don’t bother. Spend your time balancing commas, double-checking apostrophes, eliminating adverbs, rewriting passives, and rearranging conjunctions. You’ll make teacher happy, and you won’t have to go into exile.

Update: Maxine Clarke comments. It is odd that in England, of all places, they seem not to have heard of the Oxford comma, but there it is. Frank Wilson comments. Derek Lowe comments. Battlepanda comments. Thudfactor comments.

  22 Responses to “Omit Needless Books of Advice on Writing”

  1. This is much better than Haspel or Strunk.

  2. The alliterative/assonantal ring of ‘times’ and ‘try’ is one of the key factors for me. Also, Henry Miller survived because he appealed to the eternal juvenile–his prose is awful.

    I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the little animation I get when I’m about to comment here.

  3. Strunk, who wrote a book about English meter, could have explained this easily.

    But is it a good book? And don’t pretend you don’t know.

  4. Conrad: Doesn’t the first alternative also have that old alliterative/assonantal ring? Don’t you get it for free if you use those two words, no matter where you put them? As to Henry Miller, he had his moments.

    We programmers call that little animation “user feedback.” It may not be in the best taste, but it does at least keep people from commenting twice.

    Colby: Strunk’s book on meter is only a rumor. I don’t doubt its existence, but I’ve never come across a copy.

  5. “Don’t you get it for free if you use those two words, no matter where you put them?”

    No, of course not. The first alternative has the words too far apart, and separated by the long ‘like’ and ‘these’, greatly absorbing impact. The effect depends on the iambs–but still, it is over and above the metre. “Trying times” is too pat to retain the ring properly, and in any event the T- is much better before TR-, with the consonant growing rather than diminishing.

  6. A late hit on Faulkner, there. I agree that most of his stuff is fatally overwritten, and I seem to be well past the age to read it. I remember enjoying the Snopes trilogy when I was 16, but I tried to go back to it at 34 and bogged down within a few pages. Now that I’m 44, the Faulkner I really value is “As I Lay Dying”, although I did read some of “Spotted Horses” to my kids the other night before they went to bed. My theory is that the forced point-of-view shifts in AILD keep the kudzu from spreading so wildly.

    As for Strunk & White, I agree that the book gets more respect than it deserves. But it’s really being aimed very far downmarket. White’s Tom Paine example has some value (but not as much as it could) for people who’ve never even considered that prose has meter. Or thought about how many ways exist to write a sentence, and that you should pick the one that sounds (and makes your point) the best. Even if, like, you know, that’s not the first one you wrote down or something.

    That last sentence is for me, age 16. People kept telling me about revising first drafts, and I kept not listening to them. Must have been addled by all that Faulkner.

  7. Conrad: I have not found assonance-hunting profitable; there is so much of it around that he who seeks shall find. That said, your case is pretty convincing.

    Derek: I will gladly trade my fifteen-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct for the proof that somebody read to the end.

    Strunk and White, it is true, is not pitched to me or to my readers. But a lot of its advice isn’t merely simple, it’s also wrong. More fundamentally, it gives people the wrong idea about prose. The world is full of pedants and prescriptivists, for which The Elements is partly to blame.

  8. Horses for courses

    Dave Lull sends me a link to a post critical of the classic book Elements of Style, by Strunk and White:Omit Needless Books of Advice on Writing at God of the Machine. It is an interesting post. I don’t have

  9. Ars Longa, But Instructions to Authors say “Brevis”

    Aaron Haspel over at God of the Machine took some good cuts at the English-Comp warhorse “The Elements of Style” the other day. He’s good at invective, and the book deserves some, although arguably not as much as he had…

  10. To be sure, Strunk and White will not turn a bad writer into a good writer, but it may turn a mediocre writer into an adequate writer . . . which, if you spent any time at all editing, you would think a worthy task . . . 🙂

  11. A couple of nits on which to pick:

    “Famous mathematicians write primers on mathematics, and famous physicists write primers on physics…”

    Like who? How many famous mathematicians are there? I know many tenured math profs personally, and many authors of popular math textbooks, but I don’t know of any who could be called famous. Likewise, most famous physicists are long dead.

    Also, I like Strunk and White. It’s comforting, somehow, and while I know that’s not a good enough reason to recommend it, still, as Jane Gault points out, it helps bad writers become just a little bit better.

  12. Not to defend Strunk and White, but I think you are misreading the command to “choose a suitable design and hold to it.” I don’t think White worried that writers would attempt to write biographies in the form of an extended series of limericks, for example. I think he was thinking of writers who would start writing with no particular design in mind and end up with some shapeless blob. At least that was how I interpreted it. (But I’m barely literate myself, and a well-known abuser of language. I can read Spanish a little, though.)

  13. In mathematics, I was thinking of Richard Courant (What Is Mathematics?), Otto Toeplitz (The Calculus), and George Polya (How to Solve It). None of these men was famous in the Britney Spears sense, but they were all far more distinguished as mathematicians than most authors of writing advice are as writers. In physics, the best primer on relativity was written by Einstein himself, and one of the most readable introductions to science, a book that beguiled me as an adolescent, is George Gamow’s One Two Three Infinity.

    Strunk and White has been defended by several people who have spent far more time editing than I have. I sympathize with their travails but cannot follow their logic. Strunk and White may be better than nothing, but even for novices there are better books than Strunk and White. If Clear and Simple As the Truth is pitched too high, then Zinsser’s On Writing Well will serve.

    I could scarcely object to choosing a suitable design, or even advising your readers to do so. My objection was that Strunk and White tell you nothing about how to choose one, and they proceed to bury this extremely general precept in a mass of pedantic specificity.

  14. Second, write exactly what you think.

    You’re a blowhard who has just described one of the biggest problems in writing, especially online journalism, as an infallible rule for writing well. At least you get to enjoy some small fruits of your advice herein.

  15. “Omit condescending words” might be a useful maxim for the author of this post.

    There are no magic books on how to write, but there are a few books that can be useful for the more-or-less educated person who can’t write worth a lick. The Elements of Style is one of those books.

    The “two infallible rules” are themselves risible. Take apart good writing? How do I do that? Write just how I think? That is the last advice you want to give some people, as anyone who’s graded undergraduate papers ought to know.

  16. While we’re omitting words, I should have omitted “infallible,” as Anderson points out. If you have no interesting thoughts then no advice can help you much.

    Counseling that one should write what one thinks is perfectly compatible with counseling that one should improve one’s thinking. Certain authors who seem to have nothing going for them but absolute honesty are permanently readable, and this is what I was trying to get at. Undergraduate prose, in my limited experience, suffers as much from trying to please as from anything else. Online journalism too.

    The methods of rhetorical analysis are beyond the scope of this post, but I’m not sure why Anderson thinks it is so difficult to look at a good piece of writing and ask yourself why it is effective. Don’t literary critics do this all the time?

  17. –But a lot of its advice isn’t merely simple, it’s also wrong.

    Please give specific examples from Strunk & White that are wrong.

  18. At first I read your thing about Céline and H. Miller as being about Céline and Henry JAMES which I think gave your argument an even more totally rad contrarian spin.

    Also, I like to imagine that in a vaguely Jasper Fforde-y alternate universe, you’d have movements built up around White’s alternatives to “these are the times that try men’s souls” (Go Soulwise!)

    I got here from Unqualified Offerings, in case you were wondering who brought the rabble.

  19. Henry James, eh? Henry James could write a little.

    For ML, let’s see, how about “Negative words other than not are usually strong”? The belief that not is no good but never is fine is rank superstition. “Write with nouns and verbs” is silly, despite Ezra Pound’s claim to have improved “The Waste Land” by removing all the adjectives. The discussion of shall and will, a complicated matter, is hopeless. Strunk and White suggest revising “It looked more like a cormorant than a heron” to the more awkward “It looked more like a cormorant than like a heron,” as if any normal reader would interpret the first sentence as meaning “It looked more like a cormorant than a heron does.” I could go on.

  20. Excellent! But please forgive me for pointing out that “badly-punctuated” and “badly-written” should be “badly punctuated” and “badly written” . . .

  21. Quite so, and corrected. I would have left it up to remind my readers that I often commit gross errors, but they already knew that.

  22. I can forgo the foregoing, punctuation may be prescribed, style is surely proscribed, I will write bad-ly, no one shall teach me.

    What a pleasant surprise Aaron! I look forward to an intense and intensive read of this site.

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