Monday, April 27, 2009

Strunk and White and wit

Commenting on a previous post, a reader suggested that a sentence in The Elements of Style that some read as an obvious joke is in fact "a dunder-headed Strunken mistake." "You can't just declare that it's a joke," wrote this reader.

The Elements of Style has many touches of wit. Here, for example, is the passage that follows the precept "Do not overstate":

When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment or your poise. Overstatement is one of the common faults. A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for readers, the object of your enthusiasm.
Look at the language: instantly, everything, everything, single, wherever or however, single, destroy. Note too the conspiciously missing superlative: "one of the [most] common faults." I hereby declare that E.B. White (the passage is his) is joking.

And here is the passage that follows "Avoid the use of qualifiers":
Rather, very, little, pretty — these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words. The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one, and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then.
One could take such passages as evidence of supreme cluelessness or as evidence of wit. Wit is the better choice, one that respects the intelligence of Strunk and White and their readers.

Related posts
Pullum on Strunk and White
Hardly (adverb) convincing (adjective)
More on Pullum, Strunk, White
The Elements of Style, one more time

comments: 1

j said...

Yup, White was some writer, pretty terrific.