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Reading is difficult. As a writer, I help the reader every way I can think of. As a reader, I work hard not to miss the big things in the middle of the road.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

As an Illness Subsides, the Remedy Is Less Necessary

Sam Glover has an interesting post in the Lawyerist on The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, great essayist of the mid-twentieth century (Can't help putting in a plug for "On a Florida Key"-- if there's a better essay in English, it doesn't jump to mind.). He was also the author of Charlotte's Web.
Strunk and White is starting to seem dated. One reason is that White was not a grammarian by profession. What I learned from the Elements of Style was shown to me to be wrong by Bryan Garner himself. The second reason is that White carried the day in his struggles against the bad writing of his time. It reminds me of the history of the doctrine of universal salvation. Universalism was at one time the ninth largest denomination in America, but it shriveled as its competitors learned that being hateful of and hopeless for the grand majority of the human race was bad for their business (When was the last time you heard a hellfire sermon?). The doctrine wasn't beaten- the competitors tacitly adopted it.
So it is with Strunk and White. Even bad writers today feel uncomfortable with sentences that begin "There is" or a lengthy, chewy mouthful of a sentence.
Strunk's instruction may have been enough for White. White was superlatively talented, even a genius-- maybe he didn't need any more guidance (Though I note that he was married to a brilliant editor.) For the rest of us, here at the beginning of the 21st Century, I recommend John R. Trimble's Writing with Style after decades of working with this stuff, its ideas forcibly knocked me upside the head. Before, I saw through a glass darkly, now I'm face to face with why and how White said what he did.

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