I look over my shoulder to see if the ghosts of William Strunk and E.B. White are watching as I type, eager to interrupt and correct my grammar.
I think back to my college years when their book The Elements of Style was required reading in my beginning journalism class.
Blame the Internet
Today, those of us who blog, post to social networks and text message can learn from their admonitions: use the active voice; omit needless words; put statements in positive form; use definite, specific, concrete language; and so forth. Ah, if only.
The web has encouraged us to write badly. I believe Messrs. Strunk and White would be horrified at the degradation of language. What would they think of these tweets that streamed by me just today:
- Here’s a pic of the part of the bridge that fell. No delay will be caused.
- …is kinda making me want to vote labor just to spite him.
- Pet staircase uniquely blended
This gem of a book has guided writers for more than 50 years. In 2011, Time Magazine listed it among The Best 100 Non-Fiction Books ever written. I urge everyone who values simple writing to read it
How It’s Organized
The book is organized by subject. I’ve picked a few of my favorite bits of wisdom:
- Elementary Rules of Usage. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s, even if the word ends in “s” – such as Charles’s.
- Elementary Principles of Composition. Use the active voice. “I shall always remember my first trip to Boston,” not “My first trip to Boston will always be remembered by me.”
- A Few Matters of Form. Do not attempt to emphasize simple statements by using a mark of exclamation. “It was a wonderful show,” not “It was a wonderful show!” It’s obvious the first edition of this book was written in 1918 – way before email and the Internet! I mean, Internet.
- An Approach to Style. Avoid the use of qualifiers. I love the book’s example, “Rather, very, little, pretty – these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”
You can buy a copy of the book on Amazon or from antiquarian booksellers for under $10. It may be the best money you ever spent.