Thursday, April 16, 2009

Omit Needless Words

I'm off, in a few hours, to a celebration of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style at the Museum of the City of New York. I am so excited! One of the panelists is Barbara Walraff, who was interviewed about the book's continuing relevance on NPR this morning. Also, Roger Rosenblatt, Roy Blount... It should be interesting and festive.

In middle school, I found and took over my father's copy. We passed it around amongst ourselves and marched around the playground declaiming the rules: "Omit needless words! Omit needless words!"

I don't know what I learned from that book, but it's just about everything. It's a style book that I've read again and again and something about it resonated deeply in me.

So I was puzzled and bewildered by the Geoffry K. Pullum's Strunk-bashing in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week. Pullum writes patent nonsense. His main claim is as follows:
The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.
A claim he goes on to "prove" with a long list of grammatical pedantry, of citations of exceptions to their principles, etc. Utterly missing the point of a book on style: that it is not a grammar guide or a handbook, but a style book. White has a very specific style: elegant, clear, and journalistic. That is not the goal of every writer, nor should it be. But for me, and for many others, his suggestions--which I embraced as rules as a girl--helped me find my voice and convey my ideas with more grace than I ever would have found without them.

Pullum can sit this one out. I'll be raising my glass to my hero, E B White, and his great teacher and collaborator, William Strunk.

1 comment:

genevieve said...

That must have been a fine school, Anne. Have a nice party!