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April 8th, 2009

Wishing the Elements of Style a happy 50th

by Barbara Wallraff

If you read this column often, I’d imagine you’re familiar with The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. I hope you’ll join me in wishing this classic writing guide a happy birthday. It was published 50 years ago this week.

During the past half-century, writers and English teachers have sometimes carried on as if Strunk and White contains everything anyone needs to know about writing. I wouldn’t go that far. (After all, if it were true, there goes much of the rationale for this column.) But I would agree that if you follow the 11 “elementary rules of usage” in the first section of Strunk and White, you’re entitled to hold your head up when you make other, more obscure mistakes. If you keep in mind the 11 “principles of composition” in the second section and the 21 “reminders” about writing style in the fifth section, you’ll spare yourself -- and probably also anyone who reads what you’ve written -- a lot of needless effort.

The fourth section, “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused,” strikes me a couple of different ways. If I were going to try to cram into less than 100 pages all the essentials a writer today needs to know, I wouldn’t bother to warn against confusing “allude” with “elude.” I wouldn’t specify about “clever” that “the word means one thing when applied to people, another when applied to horses” -- that is, “a clever horse is a good-natured one, not an ingenious one.” (Is this even true anymore?) I wouldn’t go out of my way to heap scorn on “prestigious”: “It’s in the dictionary, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it.” In places, Strunk and White shows its age -- and not only is the current book 50 years old, but it has a long previous history. The edition published in 1959 was a revision by E.B. White (known for his children’s books “Stuart Little” and “Charlotte’s Web,” and for countless lovely essays published in The New Yorker) of a book that William Strunk Jr., who had been a professor of White’s at Cornell, had written and assigned as a text. White was first introduced to “the little book,” as it was called on campus, in 1919.

On the other hand, much of that section on misused words and expressions still holds up brilliantly. “Can” vs. “may,” “comprise,” “due to,” “effect” vs. “affect,” “enormity,” “hopefully,” split infinitives, and “that” vs. “which” are among the words and usages that are discussed and that remain touchstones of educated English usage.

A new edition, published by Pearson, is just out. The biggest differences between it and earlier editions are that this one is leather-bound and the text is prefaced with praise for the book from 50 years’ worth of writers -- including me. Of these tributes, my favorite is the oldest. Dorothy Parker, in a review that Esquire published when the book was new, wrote: “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.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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