Today is the birthday of E.B. White, the author of such classic children's stories as Charolette's Web (1952) and Stuart Little (1945). Elwyn Brooks White was born in 1899 in Mount Vernon, New York. He died in 1985.
White's most successful book is not a work of fiction, but a work about writing. It's the classic and concise volume he co-authored with William Strunk, Jr. : The Elements of Style.
What Woodward and Berstein did for journalism and Lennon and McCartney did for popular music, Strunk and White did for the struggling writer. Their Elements of Style has become the quintessential writer's guide, selling over ten million copies since its publication in 1959.
Nearly 40 years after he was Stunk's student and 11 years after Strunk's death, White was commissioned by Macmillian Publishing to revise Strunk's slim volume, the little book that White admired for its clarity and brevity. In White's introduction he says that the Elements of Style was Strunk's "attempt to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin."
Also in his introduction, White relays an anecdote that illustrates Strunk's passion for precise language:
"He despised the expression student body, which he termed gruesome, and made a special trip downtown to the Alumni News office one day to protest the expression and suggest that studentry be substituted -- a coinage of his own, which he felt was similar to citizenry. I am told that the News editor was so charmed by the visit, if not by the word, that he ordered the student body buried, never to rise again."
The four major parts of the book are the 11 Elementary Rules of Usage, 10 Elementary Principles of Composition, and 21 Approaches to Style. The result is a virtual Period Table of Elements for Writing.
Here for example are the eleven rules that begin the book:
Elementary Rules of Usage
1. Form the possessive singular of nouns with 's.
2. In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.
3. Enclose parenthetical expressions between commas.
4. Place a comma before 'and' or 'but' introducing an independent clause.
5. Do not join independent clauses by a comma.
6. Do not break sentences in two.
7. Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation.
8. Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.
9. The number of the subject determines the number of the verb.
10. Use the proper case of pronoun.
11. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject (1).
Today's Challenge: Rules Not Meant to Be Broken.
Each of the eleven sentences belows breaks one of the Rules of Usage listed above. See if you can match each sentence with the rule it breaks:
A. Bill always except on his wedding anniversary bowls on Friday night.
B. Bill always wears his green paisley shirt. The one that his wife got him for his birthday.
C. Bills bowling shoes stink.
D. Every good bowler needs three things a ball, a towel, and a comfortable pair of shoes.
E. In his last game, Bill had a strike a spare and a split.
F. Bill has had his ball a bright red ball with green polka dots since he was in high school.
G. After he bowls a strike Bill always claps his hands.
H. Bill's friends, who always call him to see if he needs a ride to the lanes, is some of the nicest people in town.
I. Walking into the bowling alley ten minutes after his team had started to bowl, the traffic caused Bill to be late.
J. Bill loves to bowl, he hates to golf.
K. Bill and me have a 188 average.
Quote of the Day: 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.
Answers: A. 3 B. 6 C. 1 D. 7 E. 2 F. 8 G. 4 H. 9 I. 11 J. 5 K. 10
1- Strunk, William and E.B. White. The Elements of Style (Fourth Edition). London: Longman, 2000.