Style Mavens


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Omit needless words!

That’s what you’d have if you reduced the 105 pages of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style — which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year — to three words. The idea is that fewer words leads to clarity. Clearness and brevity go together, as do confusion and prolixity. You are also advised to avoid pretentious words like “prolixity” (though I’m not sure a more concise word exists in this instance). But when in doubt, omit, simplify, pare.

The fun of The Elements of Style is in Strunk’s outrageous confidence. Bill was enjoying himself. He wrote the book as a manual for his English students at Cornell University. E.B White, Strunk’s student at Cornell, loved the tone, the advice, and the man. How could he not? In the “Principles of Composition” section, the 15th principle is “put statements in positive form.” Strunk tells us to “avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language.” Here’s his example of what to avoid:

The Taming of the Shrew is rather weak in spots. Shakespeare does not portray Katherine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare’s works.

Here is how he fixes it:

The women in The Taming of the Shrew are unattractive. Katherine is disagreeable. Bianca insignificant.

I’m actually rather fond of Kate, especially before she gets tamed, but you have to love the example. The Elements of Style abounds in such wonders. Addressing the “pseudosuffix” –wise, Strunk writes, “There is not a noun in the language to which –wise cannot be added if the spirit moves one to add it. The sober writer will abstain from the use of this wild additive.” Descriptionwise, it doesn’t get much better than “wild additive.”

Throughout the first four chapters (which constitute the bulk of Strunk’s original manual), the imperative is the weapon of choice. Do this, don’t do that. Strunk knows exactly what he’s after and how to get there. But The Elements of Style is perfected by the fifth chapter, written by White after Strunk’s death. This chapter is called “An Approach to Style.” Here, White claims, “we leave solid ground.” Suddenly, the equation of style with rules melts away. What was clear becomes murky. White puts it like this:

[T]his chapter is a mystery story, thinly disguised. There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course. Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.

If there is an underlying metaphysical principal guiding The Elements of Style (the one with White’s additional chapter) it is something like the following: language is simple, direct, and expressive… except that it’s magical, dynamic, and unfettered. White looks at Thomas Paine’s famous sentence, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” He tries switching it around to, “Times like these try men’s souls.” It crashes to the ground. Why? We simply do not know. No explanation seems adequate. Try it yourself. Try to actually explain, with reasons and causes, why the one sentence sets the aforementioned soul stirring while the other practically extinguishes it. As White says, we usually end up explaining the difference with such words as “rhythm” and “cadence.” But what are we really explaining with those words? We’re still just saying that one sentence simply sounds better than the other. That’s not explanation — it’s obfuscation. The first sentence is better and we damn well know it. We don’t know why. But we know it, as certain as the hand in front of one’s face, the rain falling on the plain.

That is the best thing about The Elements of Style — absolute clarity mixed with absolute befuddlement. Both stances are delivered straight up, no apology to be found. It amounts to the recognition that we know language because it is ours, we inhabit it completely. We can use the written word to say what we want to say and be understood in doing it. This is a marvelous turn of events. Mysterious at its core, the process works. So don’t screw it up. Omit needless words. • 11 May 2009