I’ve been reading Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style lately, for fun. Some say grammar rules are boring and archaic, and question why, in a world of LOL and WTF and everything in between, anyone needs to bother with them. I have a few reasons, some personal and some practical:
- I am a grammar nerd. One of my favorite assignments in grade school was diagramming sentences. There were so many rules to learn and apply, but once you knew them, solving the puzzle was easy and even relaxing. After that geeky adventure, reading a book full of grammar rules and style tips wasn’t much of a stretch.
- My early edition of Strunk & White is the third printing, from 1959. It was my father’s copy, one he inscribed with his name – top right corner of flyleaf, all caps, underlined – and had purchased at John C. Kidd & Son, Inc., book sellers, stationers, engravers of Cincinnati. In 1959 my father was out of college and starting his life with his lovely new wife in the Midwest. I’m guessing something about his job in advertising compelled him to get his hands on S&W. At some point, he gave it to me. That lineage makes me happy.
- My second copy is a little newer, also a third edition, but printed in 1979. It must have been my mother’s, guessing from the tiny note inside, written on a corner of loose-leaf notebook paper. “Thanks, Mrs. Carey,” it says, signed Suzanne. My mother was a high school teacher then, and a particularly gifted one. I like thinking about her lending the book to a student struggling with getting the words right. It was not her way to instruct but rather to mentor and guide. I hope S&W did the trick in this case.
- Originally published 100 years ago, The Elements of Style is still a balm for writers. Professor William Strunk Jr. was E.B. White’s English professor in 1919 at Cornell. According to White, the little book was required reading. He describes it as “a forty-three-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.” It is also charming, enlightening, and very funny (and not just for grammar nerds).
- E.B. White is one of my favorite writers. Ever. For starters, he wrote Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan. That would be plenty, but he also wrote for The New Yorker for six decades, producing a trove of treasured essays and books. His witty, accessible style shines through in the introduction to Strunk’s original list of grammar rules, and in his own addendum, entitled An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders).
The Elements of Style can help any writer – and that means anyone writing anything – get clear about what he or she is trying to say. My well-loved, dog eared copies remind me to focus on the basics so that my own voice and style can develop naturally. White, the master of all these elements, sums it up perfectly:
As a writer becomes proficient in the use of the language, his style will emerge, because he himself will emerge, and when this happens he will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate him from other minds, other hearts.