If you don’t like writing or reading, there’s no reason for you to continue with me today. But, of course, if you don’t love doing those things, it’s not likely you’re seeing this at all.
In my college days, I was introduced to The Elements Of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. In the years that followed, I broke every rule of language ever devised. In the beginning, I broke the rules because I wasn’t aware of the rules and was simply unleashed onto any readers I might have had. I do feel sorry for them. In later years, with the early help of Strunk and White, at least I’m usually aware that I’ve done it.
What follows are some of Strunk and White’s pearls of wisdom. Many of you may be familiar with them. To the rest of you who simply love to read or write, I hope you love them as much as I have. I break them only when I think you need me to break them.
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
“If you use a colloquialism or a slang word or phrase, simply use it; do not draw attention to it by enclosing it in quotation marks. To do so is to put on airs, as though you were inviting the reader to join you in a select society of those who know better.”
“Nauseous. Nauseated. The first means “sickening to contemplate”; the second means “sick at the stomach.” Do not, therefore, say, “I feel nauseous,” unless you are sure you have that effect on others.”
“Young writers often suppose that style is a garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity; it is nondetachable, unfilterable. The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is an expression of self, and should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style — all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.”
“Place yourself in the background. Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed and not at the expense of the work.”
“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.”
“Overly, over muchly, much thusly…Do not dress words up by adding -ly to them, as though putting a hat on a horse.”
“The question of ear is vital. Only the writer whose ear is reliable is in a position to use bad grammar deliberately…”
“Clarity is not the prize in writing, nor is it always the principal mark of a good style… clarity can only be a virtue…Even to a writer who is being intentionally obscure or wild of tongue we can say, “Be obscure clearly…Be elliptical in a straightforward fashion!” Clarity, clarity, clarity…When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.”
“To air one’s views gratuitously…is to imply that the demand for them is brisk…”
“The simile is a common device and a useful one, but similes coming in rapid fire, one right on top of another, are more distracting than illuminating. Readers need time to catch their breath; they can’t be expected to compare everything with something else, and no relief in sight. When you use metaphor, do not mix it up. That is, don’t start by calling something a swordfish and end by calling it an hourglass.”
“The writer will occasionally find it convenient or necessary to borrow from other languages. Some writers, however, from sheer exuberance or a desire to show off, sprinkle their work liberally with foreign expressions, with no regard for the reader’s comfort. It is a bad habit. Write in English.”
“No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader’s intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing.”
This concludes our lesson today from The Elements Of Style. It may have taught no one anything, but it has reminded me of why I do this.