“The Elements of Style” is missing

I am in full panic mode. My 1972 edition of  The Elements of Style often just referred to as “Strunk and White” , “S&W”, or just plain “Strunk” has gone missing. It sat proudly on a shelf of my office bookcase for as long as I can remember. But not too long ago I moved my office and someone packed it away, unbeknownst to me , and I had forgotten about it – perish the thought – until I went looking for it prompted by my noticing the publication of a 50th Anniversary Edition by its present publisher Pearson/Longman, who herald the small tome as “the most widely read and employed English style manual”. Who am I to disagree?

The bibliographic history surrounding the work is fascinating in and of itself. In brief, the manual was first written by William Strunk, Jr. in 1918 for his students at Cornell, one of whom was E. B. White of Charlotte’s Web fame. Just as I have, White apparently had lost his copy by the time he was encouraged by Macmillan to revise Strunk’s earlier work (Strunk died in 1946) and the new edition was published in 1959, with later editions in 1972, 1979, and 1999. In 2005, The Elements of Style Illustrated was published, a unique rendering with illustrations by Maira Kalman, and now, the 50th Anniversary deluxe edition, 2009. Of the numerous obligatory quotes from notables printed on the back cover of this new edition, there is this from the Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Ford: “S&W doesn’t really teach you how to write, it just tantalizingly reminds you that there’s an orderly way to go about it, that clarity’s ever your ideal, but — really — it’s all going to be up to you.”

Now here’s exactly the point. Regardless of your opinion of S&W, and it has its detractors for sure, if someone suggests to you that they are going to simply disregard it, without ever having even perused it, move away quickly in the opposite direction, for you are surely facing a wild writer. There is an immense difference between this foolish judgment and that of consciously deciding to disregard S&W for creative purposes as an experiment, knowing full well what the rules are – and that you are breaking them.

Consider Wynton Marsalis, certainly one of the top jazz trumpet players of our times; but Marsalis is classically trained. Every time he does a jazz improvisation it is informed by an understanding of the “elements of style” of music; musicians call this “knowing the changes”.  As applied to writing, for example, Strunk, in his original 1918 work wrote this about use of the active voice: “The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive:” but he also made it clear that “This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” I think Strunk, though thought of as a “rule maker”, would have agreed with the Duke (Ellington that is) that: “It Don’t Mean A Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing!


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