The Elements of Style
The plot of 1950s movie classic Singin’ in the Rain centers on the 1920s introduction of talking motion pictures. In one scene the characters are discussing the first sound movie, in which the actors talk. The would-be heroine of a new film pipes up: “Of course they talk. Don’t everybody?” But her remark underscores that her way of talking — her tone of voice and word choice — are unsuitable for a “talkies” role.
Much the same could be said of writing: “Of course they write. Doesn’t everybody?” Yes, everyone writes something, somehow, if only a grocery list scribbled on a Post-it. But just because someone writes doesn’t mean his writing can be published and appreciated as good writing.
That’s where the matter of style, or one’s way of writing, comes into question. And here, a valuable resource is The Elements of Style by William Strunk, originally published in 1919 and revised several decades later by Strunk’s former Cornell student, author E. B. White. (We have the fourth edition, ©2000 Allyn & Bacon).
In this pocket-sized volume Strunk and White discuss rules of English usage, elementary principles of composition, some matters of form, commonly misused expressions and words, and an approach to style itself. Here are a few gleanings.
On the use of a dash (—) the authors state, “Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.” Two examples they give are: His first thought on getting out of bed—if he had any thought at all—was to get back in again, and The rear axle began to make a noise—a grinding, chattering, teeth-gritting rasp. In our opinion, writers often ignore the dash where it can be effective, so the Strunk/White reminder is a useful one, with the caution that the dash can be overused.
Another reminder is that “a participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.” Violating this rule can yield laughable results, such as Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap.
Included in the authors’ list of some 120 misused words are currently and literally. The first is redundant, as in We are currently reviewing your application. Whatever is being done currently is being done now, so if the sentence is in the present tense the word is unnecessary. The word literally is often misused to express exaggeration, as in literally dead with fatigue. If a person is tired, he obviously isn’t dead; he might feel he’s almost dead, but he isn’t literally so.
Style is harder to pin down, because differing writing styles can all be grammatically correct. The Strunk/White volume discusses style partly in terms of what we might call the “flair” of a writer. Thomas Paine’s These are the times that try men’s souls could have been written Times like these try men’s souls. Or one could exclaim How trying it is to live in these times! Other options are These are trying times for men’s souls or Soulwise, these are trying times. But none of these alternatives have the enduring, ringing quality of Paine’s words; their style is unremarkable, or even trite.
The above are just a few samples from the riches contained in The Elements of Style. While the book is principally concerned with prose writing, we believe poets will also gain from a survey of this modest volume. We commend it to our readers.