Virtually everyone calls it a “classic”—and with good reason
Ask anyone for recommendations about books on writing and invariably someone will pipe up with, “Strunk & White—The Elements of Style!”
Having somehow managed to arrive squarely in the middle of my sixth decade on this planet without reading The Elements of Style, I felt—in the interest of research—it was nigh on time for me to do so.
A Word of Warning
The version I got via Amazon.com (which bore two ISBNs: 1721650393 and 978172160392) turned out to be a worthless knockoff of Strunk & White’s original 1959 volume, badly repackaged and still, apparently, in draft form, with many of its revisions still left uncleared from Track Changes in Microsoft Word. In fact, E.B. White was left out of the mix entirely; author credit on the cover is listed simply as William Strunk. Do not under any circumstances purchase that version! Rather than reading this particular iteration, I wish I had instead signed myself up for a colonoscopy. Or a root canal. Perhaps both.
When I discovered this, I went to the local used-book store (hey, the closest Barnes & Noble is an hour and a half away) and found an actual William Strunk Jr. & E. B. White third edition of The Elements of Style.
While I found myself at odds with a handful of items, much of the advice from this 85-page volume is useful … like the permission to use a sentence fragment for emphasis (“Again and again, he called out. No reply.”); the exhortation to use positive-form statements (“Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, non-committal language.”); and my two favorite bits of advice from this book—as evidenced by my scrawled triad of blue-penned stars beside each: use specific, concrete language (“Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.”) and omit needless words (“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.”). The authors’ mention of unnecessary words includes such fluffery as “the fact that,” “who is,” “which was,” “that were,” and their ilk.
Things I Never Would Have Known Were There
Had I contented myself with reading only the icky knockoff, I’d have missed out entirely on the literary yumminess that was Part III—“A Few Matters of Form.” In five pages, Strunk & White covered formatting, use of headings, colloquialisms, exclamations, punctuation marks, numerals, and more. Color me ecstatic!
Part IV—“Words and Expressions Commonly Misused”—was equally delicious. I admit it: I’m a word geek. I love learning various words’ meanings; I particularly enjoy devouring the subtle differences between similar (or frequently distorted) words. S&W explain about allude vs. elude; between vs. among; aggravate vs. irritate; alternate vs. alternative; can vs. may; farther vs. further; disinterested vs. uninterested; imply vs. infer; loan vs. lend … oh, the comparisons are exquisite!
A discussion of the adverb “hopefully” lands splat in the middle of page 48. My introduction to the “hopefully vs. ‘I am hopeful that’” conundrum came 20 years ago, when Elisa, my associate editor used a fishing expedition to explain the difference. “The statement, ‘Hopefully we are going fishing Friday’ means we are going fishing in a hopeful manner on Friday; however, ‘I am hopeful that we will go fishing on Friday’ means it is hoped that we will go fishing Friday.’” What struck me as funny is that not a week later, while watching the film Never Been Kissed, I heard Drew Barrymore’s character reference the whole “hopefully/I am hopeful that” lesson. I’m sure no one else in the theater had the slightest notion why I found that bit of dialogue so hilarious.
To quote Strunk and White, devolvement of ‘hopefully’ into ‘I hope’ “is not merely wrong, it is silly. … Although the word in its new, free-floating capacity may be pleasurable and even useful to many, it offends the ear of many others, who do not like to see words dulled or eroded, particularly when the erosion leads to ambiguity, softness, or nonsense.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. And I am hopeful I will never have to. See what I did there?
But Wait … There’s More
Yes, more. Be still my heart! Part V—“An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders)” … whose numbered instructions may be my favorite part of the book. This section contains such gems as:
Place yourself in the background, so the reader’s attention is focused on the writing, rather than your having written a slew of pretty words.
Write in a way that comes naturally, which is a gussied-up way to say “write how you speak,” another bit of advice Elisa imparted two decades ago.
Revise and rewrite. Weren’t we just talking about this a while back? I’m sure we were. Writing is the easy part; rewriting and revising is the hard work. Don’t neglect it, or your writing will surely suffer for it.
Do not explain too much. You needn’t pepper every line of dialogue with attribution. Give your readers credit for being able to figure things out without your having to spoonfeed them.
Strunk & White’s classic The Elements of Style is an excellent book on writing, one that should grace every writer’s bookshelf. But be sure you’re getting the genuine article, not the waste-of-paper version.
That said, I have it on excellent authority that cheap knockoffs fills every bookshelf in Hell. It’s required reading—day in and day out—with occasional breaks for something more enjoyable, say, sticking one’s head into a bucket of fresh horse manure. The only reason I would ever suggest purchasing that version is if you’ve got a wobbly table with one leg about a third of an inch short.
If your only option is the crappy knockoff, my best recommendation is to opt for the highly amusing, The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English, by Bill Walsh (author of Lapsing into a Comma).
Rita M. Reali is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in Reminisce magazine, the S.H.A.R.E. pregnancy-loss newsletter, and newspapers across Connecticut and Tennessee. She’s spoken about editing at writers’ conferences and delivered presentations on proofreading to several professional groups. Rita also runs an editing and proofreading business, The Persnickety Proofreader, and blogs under the same moniker: https://persnicketyproofreader.wordpress.com. Her debut novel, Diagnosis: Love, was published in 2015; she published her second novel, Glimpse of Emerald, in 2017.