Wisdom from Strunk and White

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” – Dorothy Parker

I’m rereading The Elements of Style. It’s been an instructive yet painful experience. I cringe when I realize how many sins I’ve committed against the laws set down by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.

“A singular subject remains singular,” they  write, “even if other nouns are connected to it by with, as well as, in addition to, except, together with, and no less than.”

Mea culpa.

The Elements of Style is to writers what the NFL Rulebook is to referees. Without it, chaos reigns. Words can be stinkers, as unruly as a fussy toddler or your average Dallas Cowboy. We need rules to make them play nice. We need someone to blow the whistle on us when we’ve committed a foul.

The authors’ loathing for tepid, mangled speech holds a curmudgeonly charm. For example, they label finalize and prioritize as members of a “growing list of abominations,” or verbs coined simply by adding the suffix -ize to them. I wonder what they would think of latter-day transgressions like totes amaze and natch. Mercy.

What I love most about this slim but powerful little book is that it teaches by doing. The writing itself is the picture of grace and simple elegance. Even if you remember none of the rules, you will become a better writer just by reading it. The writing is so crisp, and the voice is so self-assured.

“Vigorous writing is concise,” Strunk and White say. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

 

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