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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