Alex Peak

Live-Blogging — The Elements of Style

The Elements of Style

William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White

Foreword by Roger Angell

6 July 2009

It’s 2009.  It’s about time I took it upon myself to tackle this classic work in English style.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White is the most celebrated “little book” of instruction on good writing around.

Unfortunately, this foreword doesn’t inspire much hope.

Take for example the brief instructions Angell cites on p. x of his foreword.  Sure, they’re pithy, but alone they don’t strike me as particularly helpful.

“Be clear”?  Yeah, thanks.

Alas, we’ll see.

Introduction by E. B. White

6 July 2009

In his 1979 introduction, E. B. White explains how he, in 1959, took a short book written in 1919 by Professor William Strunk and updated it.  This was a book that “proposes to give in brief space the principal requirements of plain English style” (p. xiv).

White was in a good position for the task—not only was he a professional writer, he had also been a student of Strunk in college (p. xiii).

I cannot help but to think that Professor Strunk sounds, from this introduction, like a bit of a curmudgeon.  He had a distaste for perfectly legitimate words and terms like forceful and student body (pp. xvi–xvii).  Why?  It’s not explained.

But perhaps this curmudgeonry has its plus side as well.  For example, it appears that Strunk agreed with me that possessive singular nouns should always be formed by adding ’s (p. xvii).  It always sticks out as an ugly glare whenever the final s is missing.

The introduction leaves me in greater anticipation for the book than did the foreword.

I. Elementary Rules of Usage

15 July 2009

1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ’s.

As I mention above in my reply to White’s Introduction, I love this rule.  Yet I am shocked and disgusted by the exceptions I see to this rule.  According to this, Jesus’s, Socrates’s, and for righteousness’s sake are all improper (p. 1)—buy why?  Because the names are ancient?  These exceptions are completely unsatisfying!

2. In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.

This is a great rule.  It has always been a pet-peeve of mine to see red, white and blue instead of red, white, and blue (p. 2).

3. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.

The authors correctly admonish their readers to “never omit one comma and leave the other” when setting a parenthetic expression apart from the rest of the sentence (p. 2).  Seeing one comma rather than both is another pet-peeve of mine, and much to my abject horror, I have even caught myself once or twice making this blunder.

I’m glad to learn that the abbreviation etc. and Ph.D. should be set apart from a given text with commas, while Jr. needs not be (p. 3).

4. Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.

This is certainly an interesting rule.  It is probably one I sometimes fail to follow, if for no other reason because I so often hear that people supposedly use too many commas.  Here the reader finds herself instructed to insert what appears to be an otherwise-unneeded comma.  Most interesting, indeed!

I cannot say with certainty how I feel about this rule.  Nevertheless, I can say with certainty that I do not like the second part of this rule, where the authors tell us that “[i]f a dependent clause, or an introductory phrase requiring to be set off by a comma, precedes the second independent clause, no comma is needed after the conjunction” (p. 5).

What!?  They cannot be serious!  Even the example they give makes my skin crawl:

The situation is perilous, but if we are prepared to act promptly, there is still one chance of escape (p. 5).

Does reading this sentence not make you feel restless and uneasy?  Does its punctuation not give you anxiety?

Strunk and White are essentially saying here that the comma prior to but is required (something to which I do not have much difficulty conceding), but that, because of the but, the clause if we are prepared to act promptly needs not be set apart from the rest of the sentence with commas on both sides.

Insane!  No!  I will not submit to such lunacy!

There are various ways that I would be willing to rewrite that sentence, such as

The situation is perilous, but, if we are prepared to act promptly, there is still one chance of escape.

The situation is perilous; but, if we are prepared to act promptly, there is still one chance of escape.

The situation is perilous.  But, if we are prepared to act promptly, there is still one chance of escape.

or perhaps even

The situation is perilous but, if we are prepared to act promptly, there is still one chance of escape.

(I offer this fourth example not as an illustration of good writing, but rather with the opinion that, despite its poor appearance, it is nevertheless less horrendous in appearance than Strunk and White’s abysmal sentence.)

Alas, to say that one can get away with not placing commas on both sides of if we are prepared to act promptly, one has to effectively say that rule three (pp. 2–5) does not matter.  Blasphemy!

5. Do not join independent clauses with a comma.

I have loved the semicolon ever since I first learned its proper usage in the eleventh grade.

6. Do not break sentences in two.

Taken aback, I must admit my surprise that this rule would even need be stated.  After all, sentence fragments are only ever acceptable as a part of a character’s dialogue.

7. Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation.

Methinks it would have been good had the authors paid closer attention to the defining of terms.  How many, after all, remember what an appositive is?

I also have to wonder if the rule against the two examples appearing in the left-hand column at the top of page eight has not become antiquated.  This is not to say that I necessarily think is has, and it’s certainly not to say that I think there should be no proper restrictions upon the usage of the colon; I simply wonder what the mass of professionals in the field of English writing think today.

8. Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.

If there is any failing in Strunk and White in explaining the rules of the em dash, it’s that they did not specify that (1) an en dash is never to be used where an em dash belongs and that (2) it is improper to place a full space on either side of the em dash when used in a sentence.

9. The number of the subject determines the number of the verb.

The authors inform us that “[w]ords that intervene between subject and verb do not affect the number of the verb” (p. 9).  It is good that the authors make this clear—for many years, I did not know the proper rule regarding this.  In fact, this is something I only discovered a handful of years ago.

With that said, there are many little nuances to this rule that are sure to trip up even the best of us from time to time; thus, this is an important rule to keep on hand.

For example, which of the following is correct: “none of us are perfect” or “none of us is perfect”?  You may be surprised, but it is the latter (p. 10).  Why?  Because, in this instance, none means “not one” (Ibid.).

Still, I again find fault with the authors.  In their view, it is appropriate to say, “Bread and butter was all she served,” (Ibid.) while I maintain that was must be replaced by were.  In the authors’ view, their sentence is appropriate because “bread and butter” are so commonly associated with one another that they can effectively be considered a single thing.  Had the authors said, “Buttered bread was all she served,” I would have to agree that their grammar had been correct.  But I see no indication that bread and butter are things “so inseparable they are considered a unit” (Ibid.).  Since when?  By whom?  No, the authors are simply wrong here.

10. Use the proper case of pronoun.

Historically, I have often used the term whom far too often, often using it when I ought to have written who.  It was a friend—a friend who would like to remain anonymous—who first introduced me, a little over two years ago, to the concept that whom is objective like other terms such as her or us, while who is subjective like other terms such as she or we.  This section is good insofar as it further clarifies the rule.

11. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.

I have to wonder if this, much like rule six, needs stating.

II. Elementary Principles of Composition

III. A Few Matters of Form

IV. Words and Expressions Commonly Misused

V. An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders)

Afterword by Charles Osgood