Is There Anyone Anymore Who Will Tell Us How to Write Well?

William Strunk? E.B. White? The Elements Of Style? Does anyone remember those names? Does anyone anymore recognize this little book as one of the shaping forces of good writing for the last 50 years? I dug into the library in my study to find my copy of this great little book; I discovered I actually had three of them, all marked up at different times in my life. From the markings in the first one, I was clearly a student: The comments in the margins were quite sophomoric, at times perhaps a little too exuberant.

But from those markings it is also clear that I was thrilled to discover someone who might guide me on this journey of how to write. Here was someone not willing to leave it up to me to figure it out on my own. There are some rules. There are some standards. There are some things better than others. Here was an authority willing to tell it like it is. About writing well.

Here was someone eager to tell me that the active voice is better than a passive one: “I will always remember my first visit to Boston” is simply better than “My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.” One way of writing is more effective than the other.

Or here is another one: “Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.” It is better to say “It rained yesterday, very hard, even fiercely,” rather than “A period of unfavorable weather set in over Seattle.” One is better writing than the other. Right?

Strunk and White remind us over and over that the great writers — those like Homer, Dante, Shakespeare — use language and words that call up pictures. They remind us that “vigorous writing is concise,” a lesson I have always had to remind myself, especially in these days of hurry and scurry. Less is more: That’s a lesson we recently learned from Abraham Lincoln.

For years and years I used sentences with semicolons because Strunk and White told me these were good sentences. And by the way, a semicolon separates two independent clauses, a comma does not.

And while we are at it, if you write “red, white, and blue,” there is a comma before and. Our newspapers these days have forgotten this very good rule. But don’t forget it! The papers are wrong. Strunk and White said so, and that is good enough for me.

This year marks the 50-year anniversary of the publication of Elements Of Style. Millions of good writers over that time have read and studied and remembered the stern, yet witty common sense of good writing taught by Strunk and White. Last week in The Wall Street Journal, Mark Garvey asked what Strunk and White would likely make of our current “flurry of texting, tweeting, IMing, and Facebook chatting, much of it speed thumbed while steering with the forearms.” And he concludes that Strunk and White might actually celebrate: at least people continue to write when they want to communicate.

But make no mistake, there will be times, for our students, and for the important matters in our world, when good and careful writing is necessary. When that time comes, there remains no better guide than this little book called Elements Of Style. And when that times comes, when we must write well and correctly, we’d better be ready.


Categories: Education, Literature

13 replies

  1. Yes, this is one of my favorite writing books as well! Another one of my favorites—now dog-eared, highlighted, and very well-worn—is “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser. I return to Zinsser’s book on a regular basis. And you are correct—good writing matters. It matters a lot.

    I have to admit, though—I am a texter. Texting while driving? Guilty. Texting with misspelled words, ridiculous abbreviations, and incorrect punctuation? Guilty again. But it’s the best (sometimes only) way to communicate with my sister in L.A. and my almost-teenage son. So I’ll keep texting (even though my college professors, and my current colleagues, would cringe if they read my texts).

    Thanks for reminding us that words matter. Or, to rephrase: thx 4 rmnding us tht wrdsmtter!

  2. This wonderful little book was first given to me by my high school English teacher, who served as my first academic mentor. I remember being surprised by how pleasant it was to read, as I had thoroughly expected to struggle through a book on how to write well. I’m glad to see it recognized and included in your ongoing discussion of good writing.

  3. Bravo! My bookshelf also contains Strunk & White (in a couple of editions) as well as a well-thumbed and dog-eared copy of the Associated Press Stylebook…
    They call it “the journalists Bible” – too bad more journalists don’t carry the real thing!

    One of the best things about my law school experience was that half of the time there was spent taking required writing courses – taught by Professors of English (shout out to all the amazing Professors of English, right Phil?).

  4. I still have my copy; 1973 and still on the shelf!
    Like that semicolon?

  5. The illustrated version of The Elements of Style is delightful!

  6. In recent years my wife was a clinical instructor in the top nursing program in our state. I would help her grade the grammar of her students’ papers. About 1 in 5 were ignorant of the basics of writing. They could not maintain the same verb tense throughout a sentence. They couldn’t spell. They didn’t know the difference between a verb, an adjective or an adverb. The ability to express yourself well is the one thing that cannot be delegated, and immediately marks you as competent versus incompetent in the eyes of your beholders. My own liberal arts education was greatly enhanced by my compositon intstructor. She taught me how to think clearly while she taught me how to write.

  7. Last night my 14-year-old son was up until midnight pounding out a paper. He did a decent job, and even used a semi-colon correctly. The poor deprived child has no video games, a lame computer, and — get ready for the real shocker — no cell phone. Maybe it helps him spend more time reading and thinking and less time watching and pushing buttons. Or maybe it just gives him more fodder for being annoyed with his parents. Who knows?

  8. As for the Red, White, and Blue and the fact that newspapers don’t include the second comma – that’s AP style. Chicago and MLA do use the second comma. The logic for leaving it out is that the comma indicates “and” so comma and reads “and and.”

  9. I, too, have The Elements of Style, Shertzer’s The Elements of Grammar, Plotnik’s The Elements of Editing, and The AP Stylebook all on my desk. I find it interesting, and a little disturbing, that the cyber and fiber versions of the Stylebook do not always agree!

  10. I am a suffering reader of newspapers and blogs. I say suffering because every “discrete” when “discreet” is meant (and I could but won’t go on and on) makes me want to write cranky emails. Or I could make cranky emails my retirement career. Thank you for being on my side.

  11. This is such a timely topic, as we are exploring the issue of writing in our general education review committee and I just completed the writing workshop for students in my junior-senior seminar. I agree that it is crucial for our students to develop good habits of writing, no matter what profession they enter in the future.

  12. Really? Really? Is no one going to catch this?

    “…a semicolon separates two independent clauses, a comma does not. ”

    I’m pretty sure those are independent clauses.



  1. Ramblings « Itinerant Idealist

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: