Read the Classic Literary Reference “The Elements of Style” (41/366)

“Rule 17. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”
~ William Strunk Jr.

Do you recognize this book? Was it required reading in any of your courses in school? Most people reading this blog won’t recall this book, and that’s an absolute shame. I am completely against cutting funding for athletics, art, and music, but while English hasn’t faced the same budget cuts, there is still not enough importance placed on proper English communication – especially spelling, grammar, and writing!

“The Elements of Style” was written by Professor William Strunk, Jr. and was self-published for use in the English classes he taught at Cornell University in 1919. E.B. White, famous author of the classic “Charlotte’s Web“, was a student of his, and obviously learned a great deal from him. Forty years later, Macmillan and Co. commissioned White to revise it for college and general use.

My grandpa had a copy of this book. I never thought much about it – I assumed it must have something to do with how to dress or behave – and I never came across it in school; but a few years ago, our friend Aaron was talking about buying an illustrated version, and that piqued my interest. Nick had a copy of the 4th edition (non illustrated) from an English course in college, so I flipped through it, and realized that it was a set of grammatical rules, or guidelines for formal writing. While I thought it was very interesting (I’ve always loved writing and have always tried to follow the writing rules I learned in school), I didn’t get around to actually reading the book until today.

One of the issues I think most will have, almost immediately upon picking up this book, is that we’ve forgotten the vernacular of English writing and composition. Do you remember the definitions of the words: “Noun, Verb, and Adjective”? Sure. What about the terms: “Participle Phrase, Split Infinitive, or Nonrestrictive Modifier“? Unless you are a writer now, or were an English major, these phrases are at best vague memories filed away in your mental Rolodex. Luckily for the majority of us, there’s a glossary at the back of the book (at least the 4th edition – not sure when they started including that, but thank goodness they did); but the fact that so many of these terms are like a foreign language to most of us shows how little importance is placed on proper writing skills.

While many will say we don’t need to worry about writing proficiency – we’re not all striving to be novelists, or even journalists for that matter – we’re still all writers, no matter how informal a shape our writing might take. Have you sent an email or been on Facebook lately?

Professor Strunk was a bold-minded man. He had very clear ideas of what was correct and incorrect, and wrote this book as a set of rules, with a pretty much infallible voice and crusade-like passion; but he was definitely not without humor about and acceptance of the ebb and flow of human communication. Here’s a great example – an excerpt from the chapter on misused words and expressions:

Try. Takes the infinitive: “try to mend it,” not “try and mend it.” Students of the language will argue that try and has won through and become an idiom. Indeed it has, and it is relaxed and acceptable. But try to is precise, and when you are writing formal prose, try and write try to.

I’ve always considered myself a decent writer. My high school AP English teacher did like to slash countless essays of mine with her red pencil though – in an autobiographical assignment, my statement: “I play a lot of basketball” was corrected to “I play much basketball.” I thought that sounded ridiculous at the time, and thinking of it now, she really should have corrected my sentence to “I play basketball often.” I’m sure Mrs. Victoire read “The Elements of Style” but unfortunately, she missed the point of the book.

While it is written as a set of rules, in his introduction, E.B. White notes,
“Style rules of this sort are, of course, somewhat a matter of personal preference, and even the established rules of grammar are open to challenge. Professor Strunk, although one of the most inflexible and choosy of men, was quick to acknowledge the fallacy of inflexibility and the danger of doctrine.”

The rules in “The Elements of Style” were not meant to simply be a rigid formula to establish “right and wrong” in writing, as much as they were a guide to a starting point for understanding and clarity. If you are at all interested in improving your written communication skills, I cannot recommend this book enough.

Although I know I have not followed Professor Strunk’s rules unfailingly (he’d probably gurgle with aggravation at this writeup), I appreciate that there is a book I can turn to for guidance on how to be more focused in my writing, and how I can most effectively “omit needless words!”

Related Links:
The Elements of Style: 50th Anniversary Edition
The Elements of Style Illustrated

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