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The Elements of Style (1959)
World Magazine Top 100 of the Century
Will Strunk was one of E.B. White's professors at Cornell; White took Strunk's English 8 class in 1919. At that time, Strunk had a privately printed version of The Elements of Style which he used as a textbook for the course. In 1957, White wrote about the "little book" for The New Yorker and it spurred so much interest that he was asked to revise and update the 1935 edition of the text so that a new version could be published. The slender classic that he rendered from Strunk's original, which was recently revised again for a 4th edition, has sold over ten million copies and has influenced generations of American students and writers in ways both predictable and unintended.
As White said of the book, Strunk tried to "cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin." Strunk's original included a brief set of rules, which come down to us as follows:
1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by
and a list of commonly misused words and expressions. White apparently edited Strunk's rules into the concise form above, updated the word list and added his own set of style rules:
1. Place yourself in the background.
And that's pretty much all there is to it. It's very brief--the third edition which I'm using is just 85 pages--it is hardly comprehensive and the word lists in particular are somewhat idiosyncratic. Yet its influence is undeniable and in a couple of important ways that influence is not clearly understood.
First, the book is important because its fundamental thesis is that writing's primary purpose is to communicate ideas to the reader. At first blush, this seems like a truism, but between obfuscatory trends in literature (see Orrin's reviews of Finnegans Wake and Ulysses) and the decline of educational standards, replaced by concerns about self-esteem and self-realization, writing has come to be focussed less on the reader than on the writer. We no longer demand that writing be universally understandable; it suffices that the writer feels fulfilled as an individual by the act of writing. In this context, Strunk and White can be seen to be a part of the rearguard struggle to maintain writing's communicative function.
Second, the book presupposes that language should communicate in clear and concise fashion. This too seems obvious on its face, but one of the great casualties of the 20th Century was the very idea that language has a set meaning. Mankind having basically arrived at a broad liberal, democratic, protestant, capitalist consensus by the turn of the century, it was paradoxically necessary for those who opposed the various elements of this consensus to couch their attacks in it's language, to give them the air of legitimacy. Consider phrases like People's Republic of China or Earned Income Tax Credit and ponder the plight of our language. George Orwell, in his great essay Politics and the English Language, states his case thus:
Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must
ultimately have political and economic causes:
and he concludes:
I have not here been considering the literary use
of language, but merely language as an instrument
To the extent then that Strunk and White has been a pivotal tool in defending the idea that language should express and not conceal thought, it must be considered, albeit unintentionally, one of the great political texts of the 20th Century.
Finally, in an era which saw even morality come to be regarded as a relative concept, and which has seen Feminists call for an antirational science and Afrocentrists proclaim a black mathematics, the existence of this little book of rules, with all that it implies about there being an absolute right and wrong in any field, has taken on a gravity which it's authors surely could not have foreseen. There are other usage books which are perhaps more useful than this one--Fowler's Modern English Usage and Patricia O'Conner's Woe is I come to mind--and there have been more explicit defenders of the linguistic faith--Orwell and Jacques Barzun come to mind--but when you consider the unique popularity and subversively conservative implied message of the book, it must surely rank as the most important book of it's kind ever written. There, at a minimum, I've just violated White's rules 5, 6, 7, 16 & 17.
See also:Reference Books
Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Non-Fiction
Intercollegiate Studies Institute Fifty BEST Books of the Century
Modern Library Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century
World Magazine Top 100 of the Century
-ETEXT: Elements of Style William Strunk Jr. (1918)
-ESSAY: Unmanning Strunk and White (Andrew Ferguson, The Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: Strunk and White, move over (JANE GORDON, The Hartford Courant)
-ESSAY: Strunk and White Revisited (A. Christopher Hammon)
-ESSAY: BOOKS ON USAGE: WHOM DO YOU TRUST? (Jan Freeman, Book Wire)
-ESSAY: Words and Things On the 50th anniversary of George Orwell's essay, Politics and the English Language, Andrew Marr assesses the state of political English and finds it in robust good health. (Prospect)
-REVIEW: 4th Edition (Martin Arnold, NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE)
-REVIEW: Principles of Plainspeak -- A Concise Updating of Elements (Jack Hart, The San Francisco Chronicle)
-REVIEW: 4th Edition (Jan Freeman, Book Wire)
If you like this book, try:
Fowler, H. W. [Henry Watson)
O'Conner, Patricia T.
I am trying to do some work on E.B. White's THE DOOR. I am finding it very confusing. Can anyone help translate what the author is trying to say?
- Apr-09-2006, 21:21