Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The People Versus Strunk and White

"Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? Who knows why certain notes in music are capable of stirring the listener deeply, though the same notes slightly rearranged are impotent? These are high mysteries, and this chapter is a mystery story, thinly disguised."
- "An Approach to Style" in The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

The Elements of Style
by Strunk and White has been on the list of suggested reading in many of my previous college classes. I avoided purchasing the book for as long as I could because I felt that I was a strong enough writer. My understanding of grammar and the English language is good enough to get an A on an essay without trying too hard.

In my final English class at GVSU, the teacher not only required that we read Strunk and White, but she tested us on sections of the book. A couple of years later, I decided to sit down and read the book all the way through, covering about a chapter a night. I'm not sure if anyone has ever read Elements of Style straight through, since I think it's meant to be a reference book.

Let me say that the book exists on a strange, somewhat useless plane. The rules presented are aimed for the more grammatically inept, but the explanations and the demands are really aimed towards stronger writers. Who is this book supposed to appeal to? By the way, according to Strunk and White, it has become more acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition, and often rearranging a sentence will just make it sound awkward: "To whom is this book supposed to appeal?"

This book has been criticized by those in the academic world as being out of touch and too stiff-necked, but I disagree. Strunk, or White, who knows, makes a few amusing jokes by breaking his own rules. While memorizing and living by a book like this would probably be fatal to any creative writing, I think knowing the rules is a key step to breaking them. Too many writers break rules willy nilly in an attempt to be unique or clever, and invariably they come off sounding like idiots. Learning the rules of proper grammar will help a great writer learn when it is okay, and even needed, to break them. Probably one of the greatest rules in the book is Rule 17: Omit Needless Words.

For me, the highlight of this book was the last chapter "An Approach to Style." Here Strunk (or was it White?) demonstrates that he can write, and shows us, to the best of his ability, what writing style is. He concedes that style can't really be taught, but he makes up for this by exposing us to his own style. The book is worth buying just for this chapter. I leave you with another excerpt, taken from Suggestion 9 in this wonderful chapter:

"The volume of writing is enormous these days, and much of it has a sort of windiness about it, almost as though the author were in a state of euphoria. "Spontaneous me," sang Whitman, and, in his innocence, let loose the hordes of uninspired scribblers who would one day confuse spontaneity with genius.

The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of genereal interest and that unihibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day."

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