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Wall Street Journal op-ed

Mark Garvey

October 30, 2009. Available here.

Fifty Years of Simplicity as Style
Strunk and White taught us that clear thinking and clear writing go together.


A reader of "The Elements of Style" once sent E. B. White a clipping of a book review that misquoted William Strunk as having advised writers to "Use less words!" White wrote back: "I often wish Strunk could come alive so that I might hear the gnashing of his teeth."

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style," and lately I've been thinking it would be fun if both authors could come back to life, at least long enough to mark the occasion and to give us their thoughts on the proliferating varieties of written communication we've crammed into our lives in recent years. A friend of mine suggests that as soon as they got a close look at the current situation-the flurry of texting, tweeting, IMing and Facebook chatting, much of it speed-thumbed while steering with the forearms-Strunk and White's next move would be to form a suicide pact.

Maybe. I think it's more likely that they might just shrug, resolve to stay off the roads, and settle back over chilled martinis to reminisce about their Cornell days. Strunk and White, both reasonable, good-humored men, would recognize that texting, tweeting, emailing and the rest are simply conversation: the "rules-free, lower-case flow that keeps us cheerfully in touch these days," as White's stepson, the well-known New Yorker writer Roger Angell, writes in the foreword to the current edition of "The Elements of Style."

The young, and those who wish to appear so, have always roped off sections of the language for their own use, speaking and writing in ways that can seem runic and needlessly opaque to outsiders. That kind of dialogue is one of the great pleasures and purposes of friendship, and only a tin-eared egghead would wish to strip this happy new dialect of its ubiquitous acronyms, its winking semicolons, its shrieking caps, and its ecstatic picket rows of exclamation points.

No, "The Elements of Style" is after bigger game. And, these 50 years on, for any kind of writing more formal than an email, the book's central tenets are as pertinent as they've ever been. Strunk and White would no doubt be happy, as most writers and readers are, that the Internet is such a text-heavy medium. But with the new habits of speed, compression and informality the Web and its technological kin encourage, it's more important than ever for writers to develop an ear for levels of usage, a sensitivity to the needs of the linguistic moment, and the ability, when necessary, to jump the ruts of habitual informality and apply the tools and techniques of more careful writing.

Pity, for example, the freshly minted job applicant whose thumbs are more nimble than his judgment ("i cn work a spreadsheet gr8!!!"). In business, in education, in the arts, in any writing that takes place outside the linguistic cul-de-sac of our close friends and relatives, writers are expected to reach for certain standards of clarity, concision and care. And those core standards of careful writing are still illuminated, memorably and wittily, by "The Elements of Style."

Strunk and White perennially remind writers to observe common rules of punctuation and syntax; to be mindful of structure and prefer succinctness to flabbiness; to aim for prose that is concrete, active and clear; and to be sensitive to current word usage. The last chapter of Elements, "An Approach to Style," caps the book's argument beautifully by offering a handful of sensible truths about how writers might achieve a style and voice all their own.

Earlier this year there was a bit of a dustup in the blogosphere (I'm sorry, but that seems to be the word we've settled on) occasioned by the anniversary of the "Elements." Into the midst of mostly laudatory, if sometimes tongue-in-cheek, essays and reviews celebrating the venerable style guide, critics have lobbed a few stink bombs.

Some fault "Elements" for the doctrinal, vaguely medicinal air they claim clings to it. Some point out imperfections and inconsistencies in the authors' understanding of grammar and syntax. Some sputter-out of ignorance, I can only assume-about the pair's supposed lack of credentials (Strunk was trained in grammar and philology at Cornell and the Sorbonne and was at home in at least four languages; White was one of the most celebrated American writers of the 20th century).

For all its popularity, its plain common sense, and its decades of success in the classroom, it is surprising the extent to which the book gets up the noses of some academics and critics. Funny thing is, in their own writing, particularly in those portions of it that work best, those same critics faithfully observe the main tenets of the Strunk and White doctrine even while cursing it.

"The Elements of Style" is not perfect. It's a bit of a hodgepodge, and some sections have aged more gracefully than others. But it offers clear advice for dealing with writing's most important and fundamental challenges, and it has helped many writers to think and write more effectively.

Those attributes alone might have been enough to fuel the book's 50-year run, but believers have always felt there is something more here, an extra dimension that has likely been a fundamental source of the book's long success. As practical as it is for helping writers over common hurdles, "The Elements of Style" also embodies a worldview that, for some, is as appealing as anything either author ever managed to get down on paper.

"Elements" is a credo. It is also a book of promises-the promise that creative freedom is enabled, not hindered, by putting your faith in a few helpful rules; the promise that careful, clear thinking and writing can occasionally touch truth; the promise of depth in simplicity and beauty in plainness; and the promise that by turning away from artifice and ornamentation you will find your true voice.

Copyright 2009, Mark Garvey

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