Tuesday, 14 April 2009

"Professor Strunk was a positive man. His book contains rules of grammar phrased as direct orders." On this day in 1959 as you may already know, The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White was published by the MacMillan Publishing Company. To this day the college students that read The Elements of Style learn how to properly utilize; a semicolon, dashes, colons and the serial comma. Thinking about it, the prose of none of these students was perfect: but with hard work their writing will be great! You would anticipate such improvement when the book in question is regarded as being the best guide to direct and/or concise writing ever written. An especially meaningful example of directness comes from the noted prose stylist, Herbert Spencer, who in his not ironically named Philosophy of Style wrote about compelling examples: In proportion as the manners, customs, and amusements of a nation are cruel and barbarous, the regulations of its penal code will be severe. There is no doubt but that this second quotation is superior: In proportion as men delight in battles, bullfights, and combats of gladiators, will they punish by hanging, burning, and the rack. Spencer is a man who knows the proper insertion of the particular for expressive purposes is a subject with which all good writers should be familiar. The Elements of Style is both a great book and not tedious to read---but one must watch his or her step lest they depersonalize their prose for the foreseeable future. Which is possible because the truth is, some of the advice they give has the effect of flattening prose: as when, for example, you are told not to use the adverb "tangledly" because no one, at least no one they know (or knew, depending on whether Strunk, White or the current editor, of the fourth edition, named Roger Angell, is the person who is speaking out against "tangledly") ever said the word "tangledly" out loud, even though the word "tangledly" would literally be the most appropriate word to describe a sentence like, for example, this one. So as not to inject too much of my own opinion into this celebration of The Elements of Style today, I will stop this post here, hopefully long after you realize what it is I have done, which is to boldly piss on their grave. (x-posted.)

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