In a recent posting, I mentioned Roger Angell is the stepson of E. B. White, who you may not know. I became aware of E. B. White on my first real job in the early 1960s when my bosses, two men only in their early 30s but old and wise to me, were surprised that I had never heard of the slim book on rules of clear writing they simply called “Strunk and White” (as everyone calls it). They must have thought I needed it.
In those early days when I still had elders, I listened to their advise, bought the book, and used it ever since. It was well known then, and still is.
It does have a title, The Elements of Style, but it is mostly known by its two authors, William Strunk and E. B. White. My first copy had disappeared, so I bought another several years ago. The foreword to my fourth edition of 2000 is written by Roger Angell.
Will Strunk was E. B. White’s English professor, who had written the original back in 1918 for private use in his class. White updated it and published it in 1958 as a tribute to him. The revision sold 2 million copies in 1959, an amazing success for such a book, and no doubt why it was so familiar to my first bosses.
As Roger Angell says in his foreword,
Writing is hard, even for authors who do it all the time. Less frequent practitioners . . . often get stuck in an awkward passage or find a muddle on their screens, and then blame themselves. What should be easy and flowing looks tangled or feeble or overblown—not what was meant at all. What’s wrong with me, everyone thinks. Why can’t I get this right?
Hence, this nonthreatening book, purposely slim to be easily digested. Its fundamental principles of composition and approach to style are simple and direct. A chapter clarifies commonly confused words such as flammable and inflammable. A glossary defines forgotten grammatical terms such as infinitives and participles.
As White mentions in his introduction (don’t skip this), Strunk’s rules and principles are in the form of sharp commands, direct and unambiguous, full of the audacity and self-confidence of the author. Remembering just this short passage will improve anyone’s writing:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
The authors follow their own advice and convey a surprising amount of clear information, a good book for anybody to have for guidance and reference. It is cheap, so keep it in mind when you need to pad out an order to reach the $25 needed for free shipping. It would make a good gift for many grandchildren that they will eventually appreciate. Just don’t expect whoops of joy.
(I cringe when I re-read the chapter “Misused Words and Expressions.” I am trying to improve but will never be perfect. I find writing is like house-painting and leaf-raking—eventually we shrug our shoulders and say Ah, that’s good enough).