'The Elements Of Style' Turns 50

”The Elements of Style” is sheer horror.

Every page, chock-full of proper sentences and precise English, fills one with self-doubt.

Do I do that? Do I sound like that? Did I use “utilize” instead of “use” in my last piece?

Certainly not I. Or not me. Or, uh, well, let me check. Checking the book is something American writers, professional or otherwise, have been doing for five decades.

“The Elements of Style,” as we know it, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

The book, which is available in a special anniversary hardcover edition from Macmillan, has sold more than 10 million copies since 1959.

And scores of high school and college students still consult the book, and attempt, anyway, to pay homage to its famous injunction:

”Omit needless words.”

John Gordon, a professor of English at Connecticut College, said “The Elements of Style” still renders judgment on poorly constructed sentences

”It shows you the path to perdition,” he said.

The book, in its original form, was written in 1919 by Strunk, an English professor at Cornell University, where it was self-published and required reading for Cornell students taking his literature class.

One of those students was E.B. White who would go on to write the children's books “Stuart Little'” and “Charlotte's Web.”

After White wrote an essay about “The Elements of Style” for The New Yorker in 1957, Macmillan invited him to update the book for general publication.

White added a culminating essay called “An Approach To Style,” which offers advice on, among other things, how not to awkwardly construct adverbs.

Other than that addition, White's update to Strunk's guide to do's and don'ts lauds the punch of the original.

”And for sheer pith I think it probably sets a record,” White writes in the introduction. “Seven rules of usage, eleven principles of composition, a few matters of form and a list of words and expressions commonly misused.”

The book is also a source of controversy among linguists, grammarians and the type of people who dash off letters to William Safire before they've had their Sunday brunch.

On the precisely named Language Log, a blog about linguistics, Geoffrey Pullum, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, called the book “a little hodgepodge of bad grammar advice and stylistic banalities.”

Jan Freeman, a book critic for The Boston Globe, wrote a scathing review of the 2005 edition: Its “now-antiquated pet peeves” jostle “for space with 1970s taboos and 1990s computer advice.”

Gordon, on the other hand, defends the book.

”I don't agree with the attacks on it,” he said. “It has plenty of good advice.”

Gordon, however, said that most English professors no longer assign the book.

The “little book,” as Strunk nicknamed it, is appropriately succinct. The paperback 1972 edition on my desk is just 85 pages, thin enough to slide, like so many late papers, under your literature professor's office door.

The 2005 edition is 105 pages which include a forward from White's stepson, famed baseball writer Roger Angell, and an afterword from the bow-tied broadcaster Charles Osgood.

And it can be a cutting, funny book.

In Chapter IV, “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused,” the book rails like a temperance apostle against the use of the -ize suffix then coming into vogue.

”Do not coin verbs by adding this tempting suffix. Many good and useful verbs do end in -ize: summarize, temporize harmonize, fertilize. But there is a growing list of abominations: customize, prioritize, finalize. Usually you will discover that a useful verb already exists. Why say moisturize when there is the simple, unpretentious moisten?”

And as you may be reading this in your cubicle, it is worth wondering what Strunk and White would have thought of our present cultural immunity to office speak, where “prioritize” and “finalize,” is the lingua franca.

You probably wrote those words in an e-mail yesterday. Despite soul-deadening words like “prioritize,” the great thing about English is that it is, as the writer and comedian Stephen Fry is fond of saying, “a mongrel language” full of slang and idioms from the thousands of places it is spoken and written.

Even if it is outdated, “The Elements of Style” is a noble attempt to tame the language, which at times, like a rambunctious mutt, needs to be told to sit and lie down.

This Is The Opinion Of Stephen Chupaska.
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