Those Stylish Elements…

Nancy Flynn Apostrophe Blog Archive, Book Report

The Apostrophe Blog

Musings on Writing and Life.

“All writers, by the way they use the language, reveal something of their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases…All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation—is it the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito.”

We are on the cusp of having a U.S. President who is both a gifted orator and a talented writer. Election Night was “a very good night for the English language” according to James Wood in a recent issue of the New Yorker. He writes: “A movement in American politics hostile to the possession and the possibility of words…was not only defeated but embarrassed by a victory speech eloquent in echo, allusion, and counterpoint…his midnight address was written in a language with roots, and stirred in his audience a correspondingly deep emotion.”

Wow. After eight years in the wasteland with a President who could barely speak (let alone write) an intelligible sentence, that’s good news for all of the word nerds in the world—us!  This impending shift to higher standards for communication got me thinking that it might be a good time for my own personal writing refresher course. What better book to turn to than The Elements of Style(( by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. Yes, that E.B. White((

The Elements of Style is the only style manual that was ever a bestseller. A year ago, I bought yet another copy of “the little book” as it was known at Cornell University where Strunk was White’s professor in 1919. I already owned several earlier editions and there hadn’t been many substantive changes from one to the next. Why would anyone need one more?

Blame it on the fact that I was back East (as we transplanted Westerners call it) visiting family during an end-of-summer heat wave. The kind of day when the mercury is predicted to hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity zooms to over 90% as well. The kind of weather when, upon waking, you move from air-conditioned bedroom to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned Barnes & Noble bookstore in downtown Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania while killing time to go to air-conditioned matinee of “Hairspray,” a movie I’d already seen twice before. Weather that makes my face flush, my hair frizz, and my better judgment one notch above nil. 

A new edition of Strunk and White towered in a three-foot stack on an island just inside the bookstore’s front door. The basset hound on the cover was what first caught my eye, a curiosity given that this is a book about how to write well. Then I noticed the word (illustrated) in parentheses below the title. The back cover blurbs explained: “What makes this new edition so friendly, so classic, so delightful, is the addition of Maira Kalman’s whimsical paintings, with sample sentences from the text serving as their captions. …Kalman has taken ‘the little book’ and made it even more elegant and uplifting.”

Who doesn’t need to be lifted up by the elegant, friendly, and delightful on a muggy, sweat-trickling-down-your-back August day? I plunked down my fifteen bucks. When I got back to Oregon, I filed the book next to its smaller, word-only siblings and promptly forgot about it. Until this past week when, inspired by the election of our new Writer-in-Chief, I turned to its ever-useful rules and compositional wisdom once again.

Maira Kalman‘s(( illustrations are wacky, colorful, and often deliciously ironic. (Her December 1, 2001 New Yorker cover “New Yorkistan” made the American Society of Magazine Editors’ list of the top 40 magazine covers of the last 40 years.) Nearly all of them attempt to interpret—with whimsy and pizzazz—the examples that Strunk and White offer as they go through the eleven rules of usage, the eleven principles of composition, and the laundry list of misused words and expressions at the core of this little book.

Comma rules for parenthetical expressions? It’s got ’em. Wrestling with those pesky non-restrictive clauses? Have we got help for you. And don’t forget those thorny colons and semi-colons, conjugations of (and when to use) lie versus lay, and the ever-controversial split infinitive! Are you ready to rush out and buy your very own copy yet?

My favorite illustration is in the “approach to style” section of the book. It shows a woman in a black dress and jaunty pink Robin Hood hat, her arms akimbo, standing between a potted palm and a floor lamp. The caption? “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.” And what does this purport to illustrate? Do not overwrite.

Accuracy, brevity, and cleanliness in the use of the English language—that pretty much sums up the Strunk and White mantra. As writers, we are urged to forever choose the definite over the vague, the specific over the general, and the concrete over the abstract. And the ever-popular aphorism that I suppose we should all have tattooed on our typing fingers: Omit needless words.

All in all, it was a good exercise this week to re-read this stylish, arty edition of The Elements of Style. To be reminded (yet again) to make every word tell. To write with nouns and verbs. To prefer the standard to the offbeat. And be clear, to always be clear. From the little book:

“Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at the railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram. Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity, and be clear!” Oh yeah, one more rule. The exclamation mark is to be reserved for use after true exclamations or commands: “Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!”

Nancy Flynn
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