May 19, 2009, 05:54AM

What makes for great writing?

A look back at The Elements of Style.

The fun of The Elements of Style is in Strunk's outrageous confidence. Bill was enjoying himself. He wrote the book as a manual for his English students at Cornell University. E.B White, Strunk's student at Cornell, loved the tone, the advice, and the man. How could he not? In the “Principles of Composition” section, the 15th principle is "put statements in positive form." Strunk tells us to "avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language." Here's his example of what to avoid:

The Taming of the Shrew is rather weak in spots. Shakespeare does not portray Katherine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare's works.

Here is how he fixes it:

The women in The Taming of the Shrew are unattractive. Katherine is disagreeable. Bianca insignificant.

I'm actually rather fond of Kate, especially before she gets tamed, but you have to love the example. The Elements of Style abounds in such wonders. Addressing the "pseudosuffix" –wise , Strunk writes, "There is not a noun in the language to which –wise cannot be added if the spirit moves one to add it. The sober writer will abstain from the use of this wild additive." Descriptionwise, it doesn't get much better than "wild additive."

Throughout the first four chapters (which constitute the bulk of Strunk's original manual), the imperative is the weapon of choice. Do this, don't do that. Strunk knows exactly what he's after and how to get there. But The Elements of Style is perfected by the fifth chapter, written by White after Strunk's death. This chapter is called "An Approach to Style." Here, White claims, "we leave solid ground." Suddenly, the equation of style with rules melts away. What was clear becomes murky.


Register or Login to leave a comment