Strunk and White
I’m packing books in preparation for returning to New York, a task that requires me to make some hard choices. When I told a friend that I was using as a criterion whether I had opened the book in the last twenty years, she said this was too loose and suggested five years, which I find too rigid.
Among the books that came off the shelf for examination was the third edition (1979) of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which, of course, I began to page through. I agree with much of it, indeed with most of it, but I find some prescriptions rather arbitrary. The chapter entitled “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused” has much helpful advice, particularly on words or phrases that are hackneyed (factor, feature), bankrupt (meaningful; in the last analysis), redundant (a man who; character; nature), shaggy (nice), newfound (offputting, ongoing), feeble (one of the most…), unconvincing (interesting), pretentious (personalize), etc
One of the “Elementary Principles of Composition” set out with Mosaic force in chapter 2 is: “Omit needless words,” which is followed by this paragraph:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should contain no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. 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 and White are particularly vigorous against the phrase: “the fact that…”) With the rules fresh in mind, I had to revise four or five of the sentences in the first two of the paragraphs above.
I had six years of very good training in English composition; frequent essays were required, and they were carefully evaluated. It’s often been said that the best way to learn to write is to read well and widely. Late in those years I read everything I could find by Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, and if I can write clearly today, it’s in good part because of their example. Greene praised Waugh’s novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold because “There is almost a complete absence of the beastly adverb – far more damaging to a writer than an adjective.” He believed that if you chose the proper verb, you didn’t need an adverb. (Stephen King says that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”)
There are later editions of the book, which I like, but there are many people who don’t like it and who dislike the very idea of prescriptions in style.
The two authors should be grateful that they did not live to see today’s Washington Post which has an article on the exchange of letters between the governor of South Carolina and his Argentinian paramour. The author introduces the love-notes with: “He to she” and “She to he”. I didn’t make that up, and the author was not trying to be clever.