on william strunk and vigorously concise writing

WILLIAM STRUNK JR was Pro­fessor of Eng­lish at Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity. In 1918, he self-published a guide for his stu­dents on Eng­lish usage and writing called The El­e­ments Of Style. The slim book con­sisted pri­marily of eight “el­e­men­tary rules of usage” and ten “el­e­men­tary prin­ci­ples of com­po­si­tion” ac­com­pa­nied by a “few mat­ters of form.’ It urged vig­orous and con­cise writing.

Strunk’s stu­dents re­ferred to The El­e­ments Of Style as “The Little Book,” as it was less than fifty pages long. Its stated pur­pose was “to lighten the task of in­structor and stu­dent by con­cen­trating at­ten­tion on a few es­sen­tials, the rules of usage, and prin­ci­ples of com­po­si­tion most com­monly violated.”

Strunk’s style and his in­struc­tions were as terse as the writing he en­cour­aged. Per­haps his most fa­mous dic­tate is this one on “vig­orous writing”:

“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. This re­quires not that the writer make all sen­tences short, or avoid all de­tail and treat sub­jects only in out­line, but that every word tell.”

 

Concise writing: a 1919 copy of William Strunk's book THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE.

This is a copy of the 1919 edi­tion of The El­e­ments Of Style with its home­made look. Sup­pos­edly, there is an ear­lier printing of this book but I couldn’t find it on the In­ternet. Haven’t a clue as to its value as a col­lec­table, but as it’s now a part of the Public Do­main it’s sur­prising that no one has printed a fac­simile edi­tion. 1

A few words on Mr. Strunk

There’s not a lot of bi­o­graph­ical in­for­ma­tion on the man to be found on the In­ternet. He started teaching math­e­matics in 1890 and then spent forty-six years teaching English.

In 1937, he retired.

In 1945, he was di­ag­nosed with “se­nile psychosis.”

In 1946, he died at the age of 77.

His Cor­nell obit­uary re­mem­bered him for “his kind­ness, his help­ful­ness as a teacher and col­league, his boyish lack of envy and guile.”

 

StrunkWhite_1959

Ac­cording to the Fiftieth An­niver­sary Edi­tion of The El­e­ments Of Style (2009), the three edi­tions pub­lished under White’s ed­i­tor­ship have sold more than 10,000,000 copies! First Edi­tions (stated) with dust jackets seem to sell in the $150–300 range for clean copies.

Concise writing and clarity

This ar­ticle is a brief in­tro­duc­tion to Strunk and his posthu­mous col­lab­o­rator E.B. White, and es­pe­cially the book that the two of them will be (hope­fully) re­mem­bered for as long as the Eng­lish lan­guage re­mains alive.

Here is an ex­ample of Strunk’s in­struc­tions to would-be au­thors (adapted from the orig­inal for clarity):

“Clarity is not the prize in writing, nor is it al­ways the prin­cipal mark of a good style. There are oc­ca­sions when ob­scu­rity serves a lit­erary yearning, if not a lit­erary pur­pose, and there are writers whose mien is more over­cast than clear.

But since writing is com­mu­ni­ca­tion, clarity can only be a virtue. And al­though there is no sub­sti­tute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one.

Even to a writer who is being in­ten­tion­ally ob­scure or wild of tongue we can say, ‘Be ob­scure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!’

Even to writers of market let­ters, telling us (but not telling us) which se­cu­ri­ties are promising, we can say, ‘Be cagey plainly! Be el­lip­tical in a straight­for­ward fashion!’

Clarity, clarity, clarity.

 

Vig­orous writing is con­cise. A sen­tence should con­tain no un­nec­es­sary words, a para­graph no un­nec­es­sary sentences.

 

When you be­come hope­lessly mired in a sen­tence, it is best to start fresh; do not try to fight your way through against the ter­rible odds of syntax. Usu­ally what is wrong is that the con­struc­tion has be­come too in­volved at some point; the sen­tence needs to be broken apart and re­placed by two or more shorter sentences.

Mud­di­ness is not merely a dis­turber of prose, it is also a de­stroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a mis­placed phrase in a well-intentioned letter, an­guish of a trav­eler ex­pecting to be met at a rail­road sta­tion and not being met be­cause of a slip­shod telegram.

Think of the tragedies that are rooted in am­bi­guity, and be clear! When you say some­thing, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.”

 

A few words on Mr. White

In 1959, The El­e­ments Of Style was re­vised and en­larged by his former stu­dent, E.B. White. By this time, White was a well-established au­thor of po­etry, short sto­ries, novels, and non-fiction. He will be re­mem­bered and cher­ished as the au­thor of three chil­dren’s books:

•  Stuart Little (1945)
•  
Char­lot­te’s Web (1952)
•  The Trumpet of the Swan (1970)

The re­vised, posthu­mous “col­lab­o­ra­tion” of The El­e­ments Of Style is among the most in­flu­en­tial books ever written on the sub­ject. It is usu­ally re­ferred to simply as “the Strunk and White book,” or just “the Strunk and White.” 2

 

Strunk full photo 600

This is one of the few photos that exist of William Strunk Jr. He looks rather bland, hardly the type of man to have such a forceful im­pact on so many of his students.

Strunk and White as gurus

I dis­cov­ered The El­e­ments Of Style in high school, al­though I don’t re­call the cir­cum­stances under which I be­came aware of it. (A teacher? li­brarian? ref­er­ence in an­other book?). I have fallen back on it so many times that I should have it mem­o­rized. (I don’t.) 3

So, should you be reading this and have any in­terest in using the amazing Eng­lish lan­guage cor­rectly and ef­fec­tively, then find a copy of The El­e­ments Of Style forth­with and read William Strunk in­struc­tions on con­cise, vig­orous writing! 4

 

StrunkandWhite ElementsOfStyle shelf 1000

FEATURED IMAGE: The image at the top of this page was lifted from Jerry Mor­ris’s My Sen­ti­mental Li­brary blog, pub­lished in 2016. The opening sen­tence from this blog is, “I think I have enough copies of most of the dif­ferent edi­tions of The El­e­ments of Style on my li­brary shelf now.” As a col­lector, Jerry noted, “Fif­teen years ago, I was able to buy pre-1959 edi­tions for as low as $30 and no more than $75.  Cur­rently, some of the pre-1959 editions—the ones with the blue cloth spines on the right in the photo above—are listed from $950 to over $2000.  The 1959 edi­tion it­self, the first edi­tion with William Strunk and E. B. White to­gether, lists for any­where from $14 to $150.”

 


FOOTNOTES:

1   The orig­inal edi­tion of The El­e­ments Of Style that Strunk wrote in 1918 was all of forty-three pages long. When Har­court, Brace & Howe pub­lished it for the book market in 19520, it was ex­panded to fifty-two pages. It even­tu­ally found it­self bloated out to eighty-five pages under White’s hand.

2   Hence the title that I have given a cat­e­gory on Neal Umphred Dot Com is Strunk­and­whiten It. The ar­ti­cles within this cat­e­gory are mostly con­cerned with the con­tinued misuse of the lan­guage in print.

3   In a way, William Strunk Jr and E.B. White have been two of my gurus in this par­tic­ular life. (No one has just one guru in any life.)

4  The El­e­ments Of Style is a staple of used book stores. I usu­ally pay no more than a dollar for a pa­per­back edition.

 

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