The Golden Years

Happy fiftieth birthday, Strunk & White

April 16 was the fiftieth anniversary of the release of The Elements of Style, the “little book” that so many people remember from English classes.

In reality, of course, The Elements of Style is much older than that, since it was originally published in 1918, by William Strunk Jr. One of his students, E.B. White, he of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, updated it in 1959.

For a fifty-year-old language book, it’s in remarkable shape, and it’s astonishing that the whole concept has survived almost 100 years, even as language has evolved in ways unimaginable. While many people consider it a “rulebook,” with proscriptions and prescriptions on individual word usage and punctuation, the real substance—and style—comes in Chapter V, with discussions of how to convey tone, sense, and mood.

Let’s look at some reasons The Elements of Style has survived. (These quotations come from this columnist’s high school copy of “the little book,” printed in 1966 and obtained in 1967. Although later editions have neutralized the sexism of White’s original, and updated some examples, the charms of the older entries remain.)

E of S on jargon: “The young writer will be drawn at every turn toward eccentricities in language. He will hear the beat of new vocabularies, the exciting rhythms of special segments of his society, each speaking a language of its own. … [T]he problem, for the beginner, is to listen to them, learn the words, feel the excitement, and not be carried away.” In other words, stay away from advertising speak, business speak, and government speak. (In this entry, “ink erasers” have been updated to “toner cartridges,” but the wonderfully illustrative word “caparisoned” remains. You don’t know what that means? His point, exactly.)

E of S on overstatement: “A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for the reader, the object of the writer’s enthusiasm.” In other words, once the proverbial little old lady in Dubuque sees that you called the Golden Gate Bridge the longest suspension bridge carrying cars in the United States, you’ve lost her forever. (It’s the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.)

E of S on euphemisms (“fancy words”): “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able. … gut is a lustier noun than intestine, but the two words are not interchangeable, because gut is often inappropriate, being too coarse for the context. Never call a stomach a tummy without good reason.” Stories involving dogs are particularly susceptible to this—the poor dogs morph into “pooches,” “Fidos,” canines,” “pups,” and “hounds.” At The New York Times, this is a known as the “elongated yellow fruit” problem, where someone gets so tired of writing “banana” that all reason flies out the window.

And finally, E of S on delivering the message: “If one is to write, one must believe—in the truth and word of the scrawl, in the ability of the reader to receive and decode the message. No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader’s intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing.”

What’s amazing, of course, is that White was not writing for journalists. But he certainly could have been.

If you’ve not read The Elements of Style since school, or have never read it, now’s your chance. Whether it’s the 1959 edition or the fiftieth anniversary edition, it’s not a big investment—fewer than 100 pages—but it has a huge return. And in this market, who can argue with that?

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.