Scene4 Magazine: Life Among The Heffalumps
Scene4 Magazine-inSight

June 2009

Big Love For The 'Little Book'

The humorist and writer James Thurber once observed that his manuscripts were in a commatose condition.

I know what he meant.  I'm as adept with commas as I am with gardening, and I'm the Darth Vador of the plant world.

It began in fourth grade, when our teacher Mrs. Warner said, "Boys and girls, this is the wrong way to use commas!"  The word "wrong" got my attention and, for once, I listened intently. "Help me bake Alice, and I will give you some cake," she continued, "is an example of a misplaced comma."

What can I say?  There was a girl in our class named Alice who I didn't like, and.....ever since I've had comma troubles.

Which wouldn't be so bad.  Except that I don't get along well with dashes.  Parenthesis won't hold me in their arms.  Semi-colons give me the cold shoulder and declarative sentences have nothing to declare to me.

Fortunately, several things have rescued my writing from its "commatose" state: parents who encouraged me to read and to write, good teachers, great writers from Jane Austen to James Baldwin and  "The Elements of Style," by William Strunk Jr. And E. B. White.

In 1919, White was a student at Cornell University, when Strunk, an English professor there, wrote "Style" (known as the "little book").

 In 1959, Strunk's "little book," was published as "The Elements of Style," with an introduction, revisions and a chapter called "An Approach to Style" by White.  New editions of "The Elements of Style" were published in 1972 and 1979 (with more revisions by White) and a fourth edition was printed in 2000 (with a forward by Roger Angell, White's step-son).  A 50th anniversary edition of "The Elements of Style" was just published.

I'm not alone in taking instruction, or at least comfort, from "The Elements of Style."  In the half century since its initial publication, "Style" has sold ten million copies, according to its publisher.

"If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers," the writer and critic Dorothy Parker wrote, "the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of 'The Elements of Style.'"  With a nod to the unhappy fate of us scribes, she added, "the first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they're happy."

One day, when I had just started working as a writer for a progressive group's publication, the editor, (who I'll call Mr. Testosterone)  said to me, "come into my office now and shut the door."  I trembled, wondering what journalistic sin I'd committed (had I inadvertently plagiarized something?  had I misquoted a source?).  "Young lady," he said, closing his office door, "we must talk about your understanding of commas."

Though he made me shake in my shoes, Mr. Testosterone made my writing better.   One of the best things he did was to give me a copy of "The Elements of Style."

Lately, in the wake of the 50th anniversary buzz, there's been a rush to satirize and critique "The Elements of Style."

An NPR commentator enjoyed showing how unhip "Style" is.  "April 16 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a little book that is loved and admired throughout American academe.....I won't be celebrating," wrote Geoffrey K. Pullum, head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh and co-author of "The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language," in "The Chronicle of Higher Education."   Pullum (along with some other grammarians) believes that neither Strunk nor White was competent in grammar.

These grammarians may be right, maybe Strunk was merely an opinionated English prof who, according to White, believed that "it was worse to be irresolute than to be wrong."

Maybe White was only one of the best American 20th century writers–known for his essays in "The New Yorker" as well as for the inimitable children's books "Charlotte's Web," "Stuart Little" and "The Trumpet and the Swan."  "I felt uneasy at posing as an expert on rhetoric, when the truth is I write by ear," White said.

Yet, even if all this is true, I bet I'm far from the only reader who still loves "The Elements of Style."  If you discovered that your beloved snored, would you ditch your significant other–or love your sweetie despite this annoying quirk?

The most important thing about "The Elements of Style" isn't whether it gets everything about grammar absolutely right.  The "little book" does something far more vital than that. Strunk and White give us–readers and writers both– a feeling that language has order.  They teach us some of the most important things to know about writing: that the active is usually better than the passive voice, and that, unless you're writing a "Finnegan's Wake like opus," clarity means nearly everything.

Brevity is the soul of wit, Shakespeare said.  "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," Strunk adds to this bit of wisdom.

"All the Self escaping into the open," White wrote in "The Elements of Style."

Give your "self" a chance to escape.  Read (or re-read) "The Elements of Style."


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©2009 Kathi Wolfe
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine: Kathi Wolfe
Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives



June 2009

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