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Reynolds Stone - Nigel Jarrett on Strunk & White, The Elements of Style

Strunking It

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I took to E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and other books for children and grown-ups with Peter Pan tendencies, when he wrote that New York reached its highest point architecturally when at its lowest economically. That was from an essay called ‘Here Is New York’ and it seemed to me typical of a New Yorker’s choice turn of phrase; that’s to say, the phrase of a dweller in that city who also worked for the magazine of the same name and who wouldn’t turn any phrase until it were guaranteed to pass muster in front of its famously scrupulous fact-checkers. They checked grammar as well as facts and were also strict about the way ideas were expressed. White was doubly endowed, for he both wrote checked copy and checked the copy of others. That he could scarcely risk committing a bare solecism was down to William Strunk Jr., who led an English course at Cornell University when White was a student there. White graduated from his class and never forgot him.

More accurately, he never forgot Strunk’s book. Strunk had written a slim volume called The Elements of Style, which became the course’s set text. White was so impressed with it that thirty-eight years later, in 1957, he accepted a commission from Macmillan to revise it for the college market and the general trade, by which was meant students who even then could embark on a university course with only a rudimentary grasp of English, and anyone else who needed to communicate in an increasingly voluble world. Strunk had argued for affirmation, cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of language. White revised the book again in 1971, when he thought its vigour unimpaired. My copy, a vade mecum, is a 1979 reprint.

It strikes me that in just a couple of paragraphs I’ve been too liberal with adverbs, which would have raised a Strunk eyebrow. Also, that comma after the word ‘accuracy’ is an example of White applying a Strunk rule concerning the ‘serial

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I took to E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and other books for children and grown-ups with Peter Pan tendencies, when he wrote that New York reached its highest point architecturally when at its lowest economically. That was from an essay called ‘Here Is New York’ and it seemed to me typical of a New Yorker’s choice turn of phrase; that’s to say, the phrase of a dweller in that city who also worked for the magazine of the same name and who wouldn’t turn any phrase until it were guaranteed to pass muster in front of its famously scrupulous fact-checkers. They checked grammar as well as facts and were also strict about the way ideas were expressed. White was doubly endowed, for he both wrote checked copy and checked the copy of others. That he could scarcely risk committing a bare solecism was down to William Strunk Jr., who led an English course at Cornell University when White was a student there. White graduated from his class and never forgot him.

More accurately, he never forgot Strunk’s book. Strunk had written a slim volume called The Elements of Style, which became the course’s set text. White was so impressed with it that thirty-eight years later, in 1957, he accepted a commission from Macmillan to revise it for the college market and the general trade, by which was meant students who even then could embark on a university course with only a rudimentary grasp of English, and anyone else who needed to communicate in an increasingly voluble world. Strunk had argued for affirmation, cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of language. White revised the book again in 1971, when he thought its vigour unimpaired. My copy, a vade mecum, is a 1979 reprint. It strikes me that in just a couple of paragraphs I’ve been too liberal with adverbs, which would have raised a Strunk eyebrow. Also, that comma after the word ‘accuracy’ is an example of White applying a Strunk rule concerning the ‘serial’ comma: In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last. This is rule No. 2 in Strunk’s Elementary Rules of Usage. It’s not what I was taught in school but then, my English teachers appeared to make up the rules as they went along, if they applied them at all. To this platoon of easy-going pedagogues I make an exception for Major W. H. Wood, who took me for O-level English and introduced me to box analysis, an exercise in giving a name to every word of a sentence on pain of extending the school day. I enjoyed the exercise, if few of my schoolmates did. Rules of English were what amounted to consensus in published books, their provenance having been clouded by Time’s enveloping mist. To grasp them, one had to read and read widely and often. Rules were absorbed unconsciously. (Oh dear; more adverbs.) The problem for a writer like White when stepping into the stylist’s domain is the need to obey the rules he’s about to consider. He confined his revision of Strunk’s manual to the addition of a chapter that included his own ‘notions of error’, perhaps realizing that Strunk’s unequivocal commands – Do this, Don’t do that – did not reflect the idea of language, any language, as something evolving. What neither of them would countenance, though, was the perpetration of errors that confounded linguistic sense, even when widely committed. This is covered at its most basic in Strunk’s list of words commonly misused. They would have agreed that application of Strunkian certainties was not a competition in which what the majority thought was, ipso facto, correct, but there is always a sense in which inflexible sticklers for the rules among grammarians are tidally challenged Canutes. Strunk insisted that the word ‘try’ should always take the infinitive: ‘try to’, not ‘try and’. He says,
Students of the language will argue that try and has won through and become idiom. Indeed it has, and it is relaxed and acceptable. But try to is precise, and when you are writing formal prose, try and write try to.
One feels that Strunk gave in to these small defeats with more resignation than regret. Most of Strunk’s injunctions repeat common and commonsense rules of grammar and syntax, though his hatred of the term ‘student body’ and his preference for ‘studentry’ after the example of ‘citizenry’ shows how usage is often personal and sometimes eccentric. His revulsion for the expression ‘the fact that’ was legendary. ‘It should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs,’ he fumed. But White comments that ‘a shadow of gloom’ seemed to hang over the page and one felt that Strunk knew how hopeless his cause sometimes was. Indeed, both Strunk and White eschewed inflexibility and warned against the danger of doctrine. White’s revisionist chapter, a classic of maintaining almost to the letter the standards espoused in the book he was adding to, is an exegesis of that precept. A former journalist, I collect newspaper style books. Most of them simply lay down rules of consistency: if there’s more than one way of spelling a word, let it be the same every time. Keith Waterhouse, a former Daily Mirror journalist, wrote two excellent books of the Strunk sort, though at greater length and in an obvious attempt to curb the popular newspaper journalist’s excesses, particularly by removing cliché and discouraging exaggeration. My own (provincial) newspaper’s style book – or stylebook, as it insisted – included a few Strunk-like do’s and don’ts, including the rule that ‘do’s and don’ts’ should be written that way on the grounds that ‘dos’ as a plural simply didn’t look right. Like other style books, its idea of continuity had no empirical foundation. Nor was the word ‘nonet’ likely to appear in its columns, even though, and I quote, it had to be ‘nonet not nonette’. I have two prose books by White: a collection of his essays and a selection of other pieces – long, short, and often whimsical – from The New Yorker. It’s a sad reflection on my reading of them that I am constantly looking for deployments that would have disappointed his mentor. I have found none. The Elements of Style should be posted through every letterbox in the land. Or should that be letter-box?

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 54 © Nigel Jarrett 2017


About the contributor

Nigel Jarrett once ‘subbed’ for a daily newspaper, attempting without much enthusiasm to apply the rules of its often bizarre style book. He’s a winner of the Rhys Davies Award for short fiction and the author, so far, of a book of stories, a poetry collection and a novel.

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