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Wall Street Journal op-ed

Mark Garvey

October 18, 2009. Available here.



"I hate the guts of English grammar," an illustrious stylist once wrote. Reader, perhaps you can relate. But would you believe it if I told you the writer was E. B. White, as in half of Strunk and White, those august ambassadors of precision and clarity behind "The Elements of Style"? This grain of wit is one among many unearthed by Mark Garvey in "Stylized," his "slightly obsessive" history of "Elements," which is much more than basic history and undeniably obsessive.

Garvey, a writer and editor apparently drawn to minutiae (a previous book was "Come Together: The Official John Lennon Educational Tour Bus Guide to Music and Video"), gives us Strunk's and White's lives and credos; a meticulous record of "Elements" emendations; a survey of the shifting theoretical winds in English departments; expositions on the morality of writing - a whole lot for a 200-page book. (Then again, "Elements" is no lightweight tract, and it is half as long.)

Many people already know that in 1957, White received from a friend a 43-page version of "Elements," which William Strunk Jr., a professor of his at Cornell, had self-published in 1918. In a "Letter From the East," White introduced New Yorker readers to what was known on campus as " 'the little book' . . . stress on the word 'little.' " It was meant to relieve the tedium of correcting papers (teachers could jot in the margins "See Rule 9!"). White admired "Elements" for the "audacity" of its author, for its "clear, brief, bold" advice leavened by "Strunkian humor."

But now we have the full back story. Strunk, a philologist versed in Sanskrit, Icelandic, Old Bulgarian and "the history of French verbs," met White, a gifted student with no time for dreary courses - he got a D in English before finding Strunk - in 1919. Kindred spirits who talked shop while sipping "shandygaff" (diluted beer), they stayed in touch as White's star rose, until Strunk's death in 1946.

Over a decade later, White's New Yorker essay charmed Jack Case, an editor at Macmillan who imagined that "Elements" could catch fire in an age when English instructors had gone "whoring after strange gods." Letters were written, revisions and additions were made, and soon a double-bylined "Elements" was inflaming (in positive and negative senses) readers, its success unequivocal: 200,000 copies sold in its first year. (Now 50 years in print, it has sold more than 10 million copies.)

A high point of "Stylized" is the White-Case correspondence. With apologies to my colleagues, I must say that few editors today can match the drollery with which White detailed his recasting of Strunk's text: "The first two sections of the 'Composition' chapter sustained the heaviest attack . . . they were narrow and bewildering. (In their new form they are merely bewildering.)"

White didn't really hate grammar, of course, even if his patience was tried by various "outraged precisionists and comma snatchers." He simply believed that one must know, or at least intuit, the principles of lucid writing before one can flout them artfully. I've heard plenty of writers dismiss "Elements" as pedantic, limiting, hypocritical, repressive, "a little bow-tie-wearing book," as the writer Will Blythe says to Garvey. Yet while one may raise an eyebrow at some of Garvey's pronouncements ("to believe in Strunk and White is to believe that truth exists"), he argues convincingly that critics who malign "Elements" miss the point. Think about it: a humorless man wouldn't write about radiant pigs and talking spiders, and a strident prescriptivist wouldn't declare language "perpetually in flux . . . a living stream."

For a book extolling brevity, "Stylized" is baggy in parts. Between chapters, Garvey trots out extended meditations from a few of his "favorite writers," which contain amusing bits (Frank McCourt, we learn, was "terrified of semicolons") but disrupt the flow and leave one pining to return to Strunk and White. So if you read "Stylized," stick to the meat of it. Skim or skip the bumper sections. Linger over White's letters. And do not resist the urge to go back and read the little book.

Jennifer Balderama is an editor at the Book Review.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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