Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of a Very Good Book.

Or, so I think. One that I found very important, anyway. My undergraduate mentor gave me an old dog-eared paperback of The Elements of Style. My other professors gushed over my writing, and he was the only one who told me that it needed work. Naturally, his comment was the one that stuck with me, just like that old copy of “the little book.” And it had much in common with Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” which I adored. I was hooked. I guttled it.

People have criticized its rules as excessively prescriptive about grammar and excessively fatuous about style. But for me, if those rules didn’t entirely wake me from dogmatic slumbers they at least gave me wittier dogmas to keep in mind. With Strunk and White fairly memorized, I could write with purpose and direction. My prose improved very slowly, but no longer rambled; if it was lumbering, it was lumbering toward something.

I read the book for pleasure as much as instruction, because between them the two authors had written one of the most entertaining of all books on grammar. That’s no small accomplishment. And reading “the little book” led on to other books on the same subject: Fowler (not just Modern English Usage but also The King’s English), Follett, Graves and Hodge, Lasch, Amis, the works of Lanham and the works of Gordon, Corbett and Connors, and of course Mencken. I’m sure I’m leaving some out, being away from the office and those shelves, but you could call it an odyssey through a great deal of various, contradictory advice. After combining that with various, contradictory models, I arrived at this bizarre thing that is my writing. For whatever that’s worth. I hear it’ll get you a cup of coffee–if you compliment my mother on it.

The following links all deal in their various ways with ye olde Elements of Style. (And I stress “ye olde”–the older editions are better.)

First, a criticism, or to be scrupulously accurate, a frontal assault: Geoffrey K. Pullum’s enumeration of errors in the Elements. Before people start dismissing Pullum as a humorless grammarian, it’s important to note that: A. correcting mistakes is what philologists do, and is in fact the aim of “the little book,” B. he’s sometimes right, as in his examples about the psuedo-passives listed by S&W, and C. he’s clearly not humorless, as “Scooping the Loop Snooper,” a paper on computer programming in Seussian rhyme, proves. On the other hand, his review is humorless, or at least ignores the wit of our protagonists in order to score a couple of cheap shots. And, in this day and age, when teachers are actively prevented from grading students on form and told to look solely at content, any attention to the rhetorical and stylistic aspects of writing has to be counted a Salutary Thing.

Strunk and White for programmers.

Daring Fireball gets the sly humor of the book, unlike a lot of the debunkers.

A cartoon!

NPR’s laudatory take on things, complete with pictures of the two principals and an excerpt that includes the immortal Rule 17.

I’m off to do some writing.

Advertisements