elements of styles

thefiveclocks-1.jpgHere’s an observation from Jonathan Yardly at the Washington Post that pinpoints exactly where appeals to StrunkNWhite go wrong:

As White writes: “Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.” As both Strunk and White were aware, this is hard advice to follow, for it is much more difficult to be concise than to be verbose. Consider, if you will, the Gettysburg Address on the one hand and the rhetoric of William Jefferson Clinton (or, to be bipartisan, George W. Bush) on the other. It is the difference between eloquence and bloviation …

[From Jonathan Yardley – A ‘Little Book’ Bursting With The Write Ideas –]

The comparison is spurious: Compare one of Lincoln’s speech with one of Clinton’s or Bush’s and you might begin to illustrate something. But more on point, the Gettysburg Address does not follow StrunkNWhite’s advice. The GA is eloquent and it was when it was delivered. SNW suggest being plain, not eloquent.

(Yardly’s paper, too, slips under the SNW radar. The cutline – “A ‘Little Book’ Bursting With The Write Ideas” – is a cliché, and forced, and calls attention to itself as being clever. And blovation? C’mon. Isn’t that an attempt at a $20 word? A little more thought and Yardly might have found the Right Word. Or not.)

While Strunk might have told told Yardly, “That’s not what I meant. That’s not what I meant at all,” StrunkNWhite never can. The book has to be silent on the more complex matters of when to be elaborate and when to be plain.

ElementsOfStyle is a book of advice for writing at an East Coast University (from 1945 for all that), most of it obvious, most presented as coming from on high and without the rhetorical principles on which it rests. Without those principles, the reading writer is stuck doing little more than following the advice blindly – and winding up in muddles. I’d bet that Yardly knows better than what he says, but nostalgia can get the better of all of us.

I believe that one of the StrunkNWhite Rules is “Don’t inject opinion.” I’d check my old copy of SNW (circa 1975), but I’m using it to level my bookcase of Plato and Burke, Richards and Perelman.

If you really must have a slim book written Back in the Day to help you understand writing, try Martin Joos, The Five Clocks, 1961. Harvest/HBJ. $1.50. It puts StrunkNWhite in context. And it has jokes.