A 'Little Book' Bursting With The Write Ideas

  Enlarge Photo    

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Jonathan Yardley
Saturday, September 6, 2008

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

One of the never-ending frustrations of my otherwise enjoyable half-century newspaper career has been what newspapers call "style." Newspapers have many good qualities, but "style" most certainly is not among them. Newspaper "style" consists mainly of ungrammatical, unlovely attempts to compress as much information as possible into as little space as possible. Thus instead of the elegant "Senator Nonesuch, Republican of Transylvania," we are required to write, "Sen. Nonesuch (R-Tr.)"; instead of "Rockville, Maryland," we must suffer with "Rockville, Md."; and poor "William Strunk, Jr.," must sacrifice his comma and become "William Strunk Jr."

That, believe you me, would not have sat well with William Strunk, Jr., who on Page 3 of his immortal "The Elements of Style" writes: "The abbreviations etc. and jr. are parenthetic and are always to be so regarded," as in (the example is his), "James Wright, Jr." This is the same William Strunk, Jr., who two pages earlier writes, "In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last," as in "red, white, and blue," this second comma being "often referred to as the 'serial' comma," except in newspaper offices, where it is often referred to as the "space-eating" comma.

I have been a Strunkaholic for almost as long as I have been a journalist, though no doubt there have been times when one would never have known it from my prose. "The Elements of Style, With Revisions, an Introduction, and a New Chapter on Writing by E.B. White," was published in 1959, two years after White had written an article in the New Yorker about this privately published (in 1918) textbook "I had used when I was a student at Cornell." Editors at Macmillan immediately decided they wanted to publish it, and contracted with White "to make revisions in the text and write a chapter on style," not newspaper style, needless to say, but real style, of which White was a master.

When what Strunk "sardonically and with secret pride" called "the little book" made its public appearance, I was at Chapel Hill, pretending to be a college student but actually working full time on the university newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel. I must have rushed out to get a copy, because my heavily worn little hardcover is a first edition with a price of (!) one dollar. The book has accompanied me to Washington, New York, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Florida, Baltimore and finally back to Washington, and has been what White probably would not have called my vade mecum, since in his "Approach to Style" he counsels, "Avoid foreign languages. . . . It is a bad habit. Write in English." So: For half a century "The Elements of Style" has been my constant companion, vade mecum being Latin (O lost!) for "go with me."

It is that to this day, and if someone wants to toss it in the box with me when I go six feet under, that would be fine; it might actually assure my passage through the Pearly Gates, since Saint Peter no doubt is a gentleman of impeccable grammatical taste, not to mention style. In the half-century of its public life "the little book" has been a constant companion for millions of people, most of whom know it simply as "Strunk and White." It is scarcely so encyclopedic as H.W. Fowler's "A Dictionary of Modern English Usage" (1926, revised 1965 by Sir Ernest Gowers) but it is distinctly and distinctively American, and its brevity renders it both portable and accessible.

Strunk (1869-1946) spent his entire teaching career at Cornell and was little known beyond the campus. White describes him as "a memorable man, friendly and funny." He "scorned the vague, the tame, the colorless, the irresolute. He felt it was worse to be irresolute than to be wrong." In his 46 years at Cornell he seems to have been widely respected, even loved, yet his book "passed into disuse" not long after his death and probably would have vanished for good had not someone purloined one of two copies in the Cornell library and mailed it to White, who "had not laid eyes on it in thirty-eight years, and . . . was delighted to study it again and rediscover its rich deposits of gold."

Of Strunk's many emphatic grammatical dicta, the most famous and surely the most frequently violated is, "Omit needless words." Strunk eschewed an exclamation point therein, but it cries out for one, for the exclamation point "is to be reserved for use after true exclamations or commands," which "Omit needless words!" most certainly is. The command is followed by what White calls "the masterly Strunkian elaboration of this noble theme," to wit:

"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

Thus in Strunk's hands "the question as to whether" mercifully becomes simply "whether" and "he is a man who" becomes "he." Then follows the stricture to which almost no one pays attention: "An expression that is especially debilitating is the fact that. It should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs." Expunge "owing to the fact that" and use "since," ditto for "I was unaware of the fact that," because "I was unaware that" is so much better. I am pleased (and relieved) that a search of The Post's electronic library for "Yardley" and "the fact that" yields, on its first page, no appearance in my own prose of "the fact that" but several in quotations from books under review, including ones by William Styron, Toni Morrison and Joan Didion.

The point isn't that I'm a grammatical paragon but that even the best writers can fall into sloppy habits. The price of being a Strunkaholic is eternal vigilance, for it is easy to let participial phrases dangle (my favorite, from Strunk, is, "Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap"), to use "disinterested" when you mean "uninterested," to ignore the difference between "farther" ("distance") and "further" ("time or quantity"), to use "less" when you mean "fewer," to use a plural verb with "none," which "takes the singular verb," to confuse "that" and "which." A particular bugaboo of my own is the use of "like" for "as," which is now near-universal and is almost always wrong:

"The use of like for as has its defenders; they argue that any usage that achieves currency becomes valid automatically. This, they say, is the way the language is formed. It is and it isn't. An expression sometimes merely enjoys a vogue, much as an article of apparel does. Like has always been widely misused by the illiterate; lately it has been taken up by the knowing and the well-informed, who find it catchy, or liberating, and who use it as though they were slumming. If every word or device that achieved currency were immediately authenticated, simply on the grounds of popularity, the language would be as chaotic as a ball game with no foul lines. For the student, perhaps the most useful thing to know about like is that most carefully edited publications regard its use, before phrases and clauses, as simple error."

It was, of course, an advertisement that nailed the coffin on proper usage -- "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should" -- and, as White says in his essay, "the language of advertising enjoys an enormous circulation," hardly to the betterment of us all. This isn't to argue that the language shouldn't change. To the contrary, many new words that enter common usage from unlikely sources are useful and uniquely describe specific meanings; think, for example, of "geek" and "dis" and "spam," all of which I use with pleasure because they are, quite simply, good words. I shudder to think, though, of what Strunk and White would say about "author" and "reference" used as verbs, of "presently" used as a synonym for "currently" or "now," of "interface," a word with a specific technological meaning, used as a synonym for "meet," as in: "Let's interface in the conference room at noon." Perhaps the day is not far off when it will become a synonym for "kiss," as in: "Interface me, baby!"

Et cetera. The language takes a daily beating, often from people who, as both Strunk and White point out, are more interested in appearing elegant and erudite than in actually being so, people who believe that pompous, inaccurate language is evidence of deep thought and noble purpose. The truth is the opposite. As White writes: "Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able." As both Strunk and White were aware, this is hard advice to follow, for it is much more difficult to be concise than to be verbose. Consider, if you will, the Gettysburg Address on the one hand and the rhetoric of William Jefferson Clinton (or, to be bipartisan, George W. Bush) on the other. It is the difference between eloquence and bloviation, but as Warren Gamaliel Harding well knew, bloviation is a presidential prerogative.

"The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White is available in a hardcover edition with an additional introduction by Roger Angell (Allyn & Bacon, $15.95). Strunk's original version, minus the additions by White and Angell, is available in several paperback editions and is free online at http://www.bartleby.com/141/. There is also an edition with illustrations by Maira Kalman (Penguin paperback, $15).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity