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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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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