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June Books 3) The Elements of Style

3) The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

This has been on my shelf for several years, and I took it down on Monday on impulse. It was a good impulse. This is a great little book, and should be read by anyone who writes for a living or in their spare time, ie pretty much anyone reading this. The one off-putting element for us on this side of the Atlantic is that it proclaims its American credentials loudly, but most of its grammar and usage points are relevant to any English idiom, and the tips on good and clear writing style are relevant to any language.

It is also beautifully written - and one suspects that the best bits came from the pen of the author of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. For instance:
Writing is, for most, laborious and slow. The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by. A writer is a gunner, sometimes waiting in the blind for something to come in, sometimes roaming the countryside hoping to scare something up. Like other gunners, the writer must cultivate patience, working many covers to bring down one partridge.
That's from the closing chapter on style in general. But some of the illustrations of the particular are memorable too. I remember once in a previous job sending a cross note to a colleague complaining about his use of colons: I wish I had been able to quote Strunk and White's lucid explanation of the topic. And this illustration of how to construct a sentence badly will linger in my mind:
New York's first commercial human-sperm bank opened Friday with semen samples from eighteen men frozen in a stainless steel tank.
As the text goes on to say, "the reader's heart goes out to those eighteen poor fellows"!

Anyway, a tremendously useful read. I hope that I follow most of its recommendations instinctively, but it never does any harm to be reminded, to sharpen the saw as it were. I would say it's actually of greater relevance to the general writer than the Economist Style Guide, though the latter is also essential in my own line of work.

Top UnSuggestion for this book: Judge and Jury, by James Patterson


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 6th, 2007 05:40 am (UTC)
I am never very far from my own copy of Strunk and White.
Jun. 6th, 2007 07:11 am (UTC)
One of the only style guides that's amusing to read instead of dry as a cork :)
Jun. 6th, 2007 07:34 am (UTC)
I think I've a copy lurking on a shelf somewhere, which I feel I may need to read in the not-too-distant future...

(Does it have anything to say about people who over-use elipses?)
Jun. 6th, 2007 08:48 am (UTC)
Perhaps ...

(Ouch, that hurt!)
Jun. 6th, 2007 09:30 am (UTC)
Ah, Strunk & White!
Jun. 6th, 2007 12:53 pm (UTC)
Your version has illustrations? Anyway, I was pretty unimpressed by the book though I can see why it appeals to people. It seems to be yet another one of those style guides full of personal prejudices. It's been a long time since I read it so I can't think of too many examples off-hand. The irrational dislike of sentence-initial "however" is one though. And of course, the banning of singular "they" in favour of "he"...
(no subject) - acesspadesdice - Jun. 6th, 2007 02:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 6th, 2007 04:22 pm (UTC)
Clearly that was a recent edition. I am pretty sure the sperm bank example was not in the version we went through in high school English; the school would have banned it.

It has moments of brilliant exposition, unfortunately interlarded with arbitrary and cranky pronouncements. Every writer and editor has personal preferences and allergies, and the better ones recognize them as such.
Jun. 6th, 2007 11:11 pm (UTC)
Off topic:
I have started reading, and am enjoying Science, Colonialism & Ireland by "what's his name".

It was interesting to see you quoting Roy Johnston whom I knew during the 1980s through the Operations Research Society. He was always one to court controversey, even in his personal life. He had many views on many things.
Jun. 7th, 2007 04:43 am (UTC)
I say a bit more towards the end of the book about why he is WRONG. But of course one has to remember that he is in his own cranky way a courageous man who was also had a hand in turning what became the Official wing of Sinn Fein away from violence and for challenging the divorce ban at the highest level.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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