Saturday, December 01, 2007

Revisiting Strunk and White

Re-reading “The Elements of Style” is like visiting with an old friend after a long, long absence.

All the endearing qualities, all the old bonds, come rushing back.

And, with the passage of the years, there’s so much to talk about with authors William Strunk and E.B. White. So much to be reminded of. That includes their assurance that it’s all right to end a sentence with a preposition — especially if it saves you from writing, “So much of which to be reminded.”

The book reminded me of how much I’ve wanted to share with kindred spirits my revulsion for the ubiquitous “robust.” Whom better than Strunk and White?

If there was ever a “Bush-ite” word, it is “robust.” It almost comes branded with the black mark of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. The word is all posture and no substance. “Mission Accomplished” was, and is, “robust.”

What kind of bust has Iraq been? A RO-BUST!

So it was that Strunk and White singled out “thrust,” which displays its own phoney muscle-flexing. To quote from page 61 of the third edition: “This showy noun, suggestive of power, hinting of sex, is the darling of executives, politicos and speech writers. Use it sparingly. Save it for specific applications.”

Exactly, and likewise with “robust.”

“The Elements of Style” is one gem after another.

One of my favorite passages explains how Lincoln got away with “Four score and seven years ago.”

I mean, REALLY! Talk about over-written.

And yet he did it, and White in the book’s concluding section, titled “An Approach to Style,” nails down why.

Noting that Lincoln was “flirting with disaster” when he wrote the phrase, White continues:

The president could have got into his sentence with plain “eighty-seven” — a saving of two words and less of a strain on the listeners’ powers of multiplication. But Lincoln’s ear must have told him to go ahead with four score and seven. By doing so, he achieved cadence while skirting the edge of fanciness. Suppose he had blundered over the line and written, “In the year of our Lord seventeen hundred and seventy-six.” His speech would have sustained a heavy blow. Or suppose he had settled on “eighty-seven.” In that case he would have got into his introductory sentence too quickly; the timing would have been bad.”

Lincoln’s choice of a beginning ensured that, contrary to what he said that day, we will long remember his short speech at the hallowed Gettysburg battleground.

Strunk and White’s well-chosen words have the same effect. We will long remember “The Elements of Style.”

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Blogger Jack Bog said...

Have you seen the illustrated version? A beautiful book.

12:26 AM  
Anonymous Steve Brannon said...

The first edition version of The Elements of Style is available at:

8:16 AM  
Blogger Terry said...

Delightful post.

But... "Whom better... ?

3:18 PM  
Anonymous Rick said...

Well, Terry, I'm not so sure about your questioning of "whom." Those are the folks I want to share my revulsion with (or with whom I want to share my revulsion), so it seems to me they should be the objective case.

I confess, when I first wrote this, I paused over the "who/whom" conundrum, as Strunk and White would have me do, and came to the conclusion that "whom" was the way to go.


3:49 PM  
Blogger Terry said...

I'm pretty sure that your construction demands a subjective relative pronoun, since the implied verb is a form of "to be":

"Who is better..." or "Who would be better... ."

That's probably why it sounds awkward (although the grammatically correct "It is I" sounds kind of pedantic, and awkward, too.)

2:03 PM  

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