On Strunk and White

I probably don’t know as much grammar as I should. But one thing has kept that shortcoming from veering into catastrophe. I typically cut enough superfluous words to avoid complex strings of commas, unusual combinations of tenses, or alien syntax. (Such superfluous words might include “probably” or “typically.”) I try, often unsuccessfully, to be extraordinarily, stubbornly, infuriatingly concise.

I’m no different than the average reader when I reduce William Strunk and E.B. White’s Elements of Style down to its most famous phrase: “Thus, brevity is a byproduct of vigor.” The thin volume contains far more than advice of that sort. Half the book is comprised simply of expressions commonly confused and rules of grammar commonly broken. But its greatest value lies in the sections entitled “Elementary Principles of Composition” and “An Approach to Style.”

Strunk and White … or Strunk by way of White … lay out a number of practical tips for writing effectively. They advise writers to keep sentences brief, state ideas clearly, organize paragraphs simply, revise constantly, and avoid flowery words or constructions. The volume is thin, writing simple, structure one of bullet points and brief explanations, but the total substantially more than a sum of parts. Elements of Style – more commonly referred to by the author’s names (“Strunk and White”) – represents a style of writing increasingly out of vogue.

Maureen Dowd writes with one eyebrow raised, looking over the frame of her glasses. Do not affect a breezy manner. Gail Collins engages in verbal tomfoolery of all sorts. Prefer the standard to the offbeat. Tom Friedman writes again about his cab driver. Place yourself in the background. Alex Ross refers constantly to a fin de siecle. Avoid foreign languages. Legal scholars weigh in on the politics of the day. Omit needless words.

In a functional sense, the Strunk and White manual is no more than what it claims to be: a primer, a thin volume of very basic rules for beginning writers. No accomplished writer would ever adhere strictly to all of them at all times. But Strunk and White join George Orwell and his “Politics and the English Language” as symbols of reverence for those fundamentals, of belief in the power of simple words. Language is utilitarian as well as beautiful and its beauty is often wrapped up in its clarity and evocative power. Beauty is unteachable and ephemeral, but simplicity is not.

Elements of Style is foundational, the bones to which ligaments, sinew, veins, skin, hair, cotton, linens, wool jackets, pork-pie hats, tasteful frames, and elegant tie clips are added later, little by little. There’s a lot of writing out there. Some of it is simple but most is, intentionally or otherwise, extremely florid. Even that of the most accomplished and well-regarded writers often begs to be stripped back to bare wood. Orwell is the “why” – Strunk and White, the “how.”