The Elements of Style

When you buy textbooks online at the UCLA bookstore, there is always a last-minute offer to add random school supplies to your purchase. Last fall, among the packages of notebooks and foreign language dictionaries, I decided to pick up William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s classic The Elements of Style. Having already experienced the grammatical doldrums of Diana Hacker’s The Bedford Handbook, I expected to find a simple reference text where I could look up the proper usage of semi-colons or figure out how to diagram a sentence. I should have known to expect more from the author of Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan.

I’m not quite sure how useful The Elements of Style is as a grammar book (it lacks advice or explanation for some of the harder aspects of composition), but I really do think it is amusing enough to read for fun. White’s grammatical and stylistic pointers are coupled with quirky examples and frequently snarky comments and I think it’s particularly funny because these so-called errors are truly made all the time. I’m currently particularly fond of the chapter “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused.”

Here is a sampling:

Care less. The dismissive “I couldn’t care less” is often used with the shortened “not” mistakenly (and mysteriously) omitted: “I could care less.” The error destroys the meaning of the sentence and is careless indeed.

Facility. Why must jails, hospitals, and schools suddenly become “facilities”?

Finalize. A pompous, ambiguous verb.

A few of my favorites:

Flammable. An oddity, chiefly useful in saving lives. The common word meaning “combustible” is inflammable. But some people are thrown off by the in- and think inflammable means “not combustible.” For this reason, trucks carrying gasoline or explosives are now marked FLAMMABLE. Unless you are operating such a truck and hence are concerned with the safety of children and illiterates, use inflammable.

Prestigious. Often an adjective of last resort. It’s in the dictionary, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it.

Thrust. This showy noun, suggestive of power, hinting of sex, is the darling of executives, politicos, and speech-writers. Use it sparingly.

Personally, I don’t think most of his “rules” are necessarily true all the time, especially since language is perpetually evolving by nature (ironically, grammaticians are intrinsically conservative about new words and usages). Nevertheless, The Elements of Style allows the modern reader to delve into the mind of a talented and scrupulous writer. The types of advice that he doles out about the importance of being concise and specific word choice provides a sort of insight into White’s writing process and the aspects of language and composition that he thinks are most important.

In high school, when we were asked to analyze a certain author’s usage of diction, oftentimes I heard complaints that the author probably didn’t even mean to employ a certain device or sentence structure and that all this analysis was simply BS. Perhaps this assumption rises out of the Romantic notions of spontaneity and natural genius, the idea that a writer simply sits down and jots down all his thoughts at that moment, but I think anyone who has seriously attempted the difficult task of writing, especially in poetry, knows that word choice matters and that a person can and will spend an hour trying to decide whether to use ran or sprinted or skipped. These subtle nuances matter and maybe that’s the biggest lesson that The Elements of Style attempts to teach the amateur writer.

E.B. White’s grammar reference has taken a lot of criticism  (and rightly so) over the years for being overly opinionated and simplistic and is mostly rejected by serious grammar nazis as a lightweight, but I think if it is read more as a psychological reflection of White’s writing preferences then it’s really quite illuminating.

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Good Morning “Baltimore”!

I think every writer, whether of fiction or editorial opinion, suffers from that old philosophical cliche about hearing sounds in a vacant forest. Does your writing matter if no one is there to read it? Do your thoughts? Even if you have the greatest manuscript, if no one will publish you, do you matter?

I thought going to college and majoring in English literature meant that I would be constantly writing, voicing my opinions and perfecting my manner of expression. But that hasn’t really been the case. The truth is, six or seven papers a quarter and writing essays for only one professor or TA to read is simply not enough for me. When I read something emotionally inspiring or technically brilliant, sometimes I just want to shout it from the roof tops and tell everyone I see. I want everyone to know about the Houyhnhnms and zeugmas and Wordsworth’s “egotistical sublime.” I want somebody to care because this is what I care about. With all of my friends flying in different directions in terms of fields of study and career paths, I still want to connect to them and have them understand this part of my life.  

Perhaps equally important is the simple fact that I just need a place to wax literary. I know some people see such a passion for literature as impractical, even delusional. Others simply don’t understand how one silly rhyme about “cabbages and kings” can make a girl so insanely giddy. Sometimes, at the end of the day, it helps to be able to rant about those things that tickle your toes to the world (wide web).

While this blog will have a primarily literary focus, I will most probably touch on some of my other social, cultural, and humanities interests, and occasionally dish out some of my pseudo-philosophy. However, I’m definitely hoping to maintain a separation between my personal and academic personas because I think what the two have to say are vastly different.

And so today, I launch my first semi-“professional” blog with a Tracy-Turnblad-esque naivete that this will be something witty, important, and fun.

“some day when I take to the floor,/ the world’s gonna wake up and see/ Baltimore and me!”