Monday, May 18, 2009

The Elements of Style,
one more time

William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2000. $9.95.

Recent debate about the value of The Elements of Style prompted me to do what I had not done in perhaps twenty years: read the book straight through. Here's what I found:

The most appealing aspect of The Elements is its case for a style of writing that exhibits, in E.B. White's words, "cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity," "plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity." Such a style requires, William Strunk says, "not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell." Or as Ezra Pound advises poets in his essay "A Few Don'ts" (1913), "Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something." Given the available evidence of Strunk's literary interests, I sense not Poundian influence but coincidence: a shared preoccupation with condensation and clarity, a shared disdain for 19th-century floridity and pomp, what Pound elsewhere calls "mush."

The Elements makes its case for a plain style with generosity and flexibility. Choices in writing are "somewhat a matter of individual preference," we're told. With questions of usage, "we have no lawgiver whose word is final." So much depends upon a good ear: "The question of ear is vital." The book's final chapter, "An Approach to Style" (by E.B. White), meditates upon the difficulty and mystery of good writing, offering tips, "gentle reminders," for those making their way in the dark: "Do not construct awkward adverbs"; "Use figures of speech sparingly."

There is little that's gentle in the preceding chapter, "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused," which covers what so-called sticklers seem to have in mind when they speak of Strunk and White: the misuse of such words as fewer and less, imply and infer, lie and lay. Recommendations here seem at times arbitrary: by what reasoning is insightful bad and perceptive good? And the tone is sometimes haughty. Re: flammable and gasoline trucks: "Unless you are operating such a truck and hence are concerned with the safety of children and illiterates, use inflammable." Re: prestigious: "It's in the dictionary, but that doesn't mean you have to use it."

The sniffiness in such remarks is evidence of what seems to me the strongest case against the continued pedagogical usefulness of The Elements of Style: the world of the book's sample sentences is dowdy, a bit snobbish, and very white. For example:

For two dollars you can call your mother in London and tell her all about George's taking you out to dinner.

Her father and mother arrived by the afternoon train.

Once a year he visited the old mansion.

She entered her boat in the round-the-island race.

The contents of a jar may be either singular or plural, depending on what's in the jar — jam or marbles.
My favorite sentence of this sort:
Mr. Oglethorp was chair of the meeting.
I suspect that the meeting was of the Downtown Merchants Association, about the children riding their bicycles on the sidewalks after school. Why, just last week Mrs. Oglethorp's sister was visiting, and she had gone downtown to buy some thread, and as she was leaving the store —

That's enough.

My point has nothing to do with so-called political correctness. It's more a matter of temporal correctness: afternoon trains and jars of marbles fit some versions of mid-20th-century life, but not an early-21st-century book of writing instruction. Yet these sentences are the stuff of The Elements of Style; some have become the stuff of art and music in Maira Kalman's illustrated version of the book (2005) and Nico Muhly's Elements song cycle (2005). I cannot imagine changing these sentences, any more than I can imagine equipping the denizens of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks with iPhones. Mr. Oglethorp must remain chair, even if the downtown stores are gone. It's perhaps relevant that The Elements of Style as we know it — Strunk and White — began with nostalgia: the unexpected gift to White in 1957 of a memory-triggering copy of Strunk's original Elements, a book White had last seen in 1919.

Datedness is evident too in the advice The Elements offers about manuscript preparation. "Keep righthand and lefthand margins roughly the same width"; "When a word must be divided at the end of a line, consult a dictionary to learn the syllables between which division should be made": these bits of advice, still in the fourth edition, date from 1959, the world of the typewriter. The following advice about documenting sources, first appearing in Strunk's 1918 Elements, is unchanged in the 2000 edition:
In scholarly work requiring exact references, abbreviate titles that occur frequently, giving the full forms in an alphabetical list at the end. As a general practice, give the references in parentheses or in footnotes, not in the body of the sentence.
Yes, it's as if MLA and APA guidelines did not exist, and in 1918, of course, they didn't, though the Chicago Manual of Style predates The Elements. But woe unto a student in 2009 who thinks The Elements is all one needs to know about managing sources.

Or all one needs to know about any number of writing matters — how to develop paragraphs, for instance, about which the book says little. The Elements of Style is useful though not as an all-purpose reference but as a source of inspiration. Chapters Two and Five ("Elementary Principles of Composition," "An Approach to Style") in particular can serve to keep the writer at the task of caring for words and sentences, cutting here, rearranging there, refusing, at all points, to settle. The Elements of Style may work best as a writer's talisman. That's the best explanation I can offer of the book's long-lived pseudo-sacred status.

[I consulted all editions of The Elements of Style: 1918, 1959, 1979, 2000, 2005, 2009. The 2009 fiftieth-anniversary hardcover reprints the text of the fourth edition, adding a very brief account of the book's history and four pages of tributes from writers and public figures.]

All posts on the great Strunk and White debate
Pullum on Strunk and White
Hardly (adverb) convincing (adjective)
Strunk and White and wit
More on Pullum, Strunk, White

On Maira Kalman, Nico Muhly, William Strunk Jr., and E.B. White
Elements of Style Goes Beyond Words (NPR)

comments: 5

mark said...

Michael, this is the fairest assessment of EOS that I've seen in all the recent weeks' hoo-hah about the book. Yes, Elements is idiosyncratic, somewhat dated, and incomplete--but, at the same time, it's entertaining, still quite useful, and, as you point out, inspirational. The datedness never bothered me; I don't think it's necessarily a detriment to ask students to work from examples that don't match their own experience. But I don't teach, so take that for what it's worth.

Regarding the book's drive toward clarity, plainness, concision, etc.: There is a moralizing component to the ethos underlying Elements that may be even more unwelcome in today's classroom than its dusty sentences about trains and horses (though it doesn't bother me, and in fact I think it's one of the elements responsible for the book's enduring appeal). One of the sources that Strunk cites in his introduction to the original edition, and which he recommends for further study, is The Art of Writing, published in 1916 by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Here's Q on the point:

"A lesson about writing your language may go deeper than language; for language is your reason, your logos. So long as you prefer abstract words, which express other men’s summarised concepts of things, to concrete ones which lie as near as can be reached to things themselves and are the firsthand material for your thoughts, you will remain, at the best, writers at second-hand. If your language be jargon, your intellect, if not your whole character, will almost certainly correspond. Where your mind should go straight, it will dodge: the difficulties it should approach with a fair front and grip with a firm hand it will be seeking to evade or circumvent. For the style is the man, and where a man’s treasure is there his heart, and his brain, and his writing, will be also."

Strunk was a bit less explicit on that subject, but I think he definitely shared the feeling. The idea, as I see it, is that better writers seek to shake the cant, evasiveness, and imprecision from their prose not simply because it makes for easier reading but because they're working in the service of truth. Now there's an idea that may not enjoy a lot of cachet in the modern classroom.

Great post.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Mark. That's a wonderful passage from Quiller-Couch (and the book, as I just discovered, is available for download from Google Book Search). Reading what Q-C says about jargon reminds me of Dennis Dutton's Bad Writing Contest.

"I don't think it's necessarily a detriment to ask students to work from examples that don't match their own experience": I agree, and I'm impatient with the sort of reasoning that Diane Ravitch writes about in The Language Police (e.g., no stories with an ocean, because some children have never seen an ocean). But I'd say that with a book of writing instruction, there's an assumption that sample sentences reflect one's time (unless they're explicitly about past things: "Michaelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel"). That I can't imagine The Elements with newer sentences is a measure of the book's place in American culture.

Matt Thomas said...

Please – in true Elements of Style fashion – consider publishing all your posts and related comments about Elements of Style in book form. I can almost see the look of defeat on Geoffrey K. Pullum’s face as the slim, handsome volume arrives in his mailbox.

Michael Leddy said...

Maybe I should send it postage due.

I read the absence of any comment from Geoffrey Pullum on the adverbs and adjectives post as evidence of defeat (his, not mine).

mark said...

Thanks, Michael. Yes, the Quiller-Couch book is very interesting, particularly the chapter on jargon. The Bad Writing Contest is great fun--I wish it was still going on. Maybe Mr. Dutton simply got overwhelmed with entries. Someone ought to pick up the mantle.