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May 16, 2009 - Bill Ackerbauer
A while back, we ran a column by Andy Rooney in which he praised "The Elements of Style" and its editors, Strunk & White (especially White).
All of us English-major types who aspire to write masterfully know of "The Elements of Style." Several of us own copies of it, and a few of us actually have read the thing! You can read the 1918 edition (Prof. Strunk's original, before White came along and improved it) online (for free!) at http://www.bartleby.com/141/.
It's a testament to the quality of the book that several generations of students and writers have relied upon it for advice about grammar, usage and style. Andy Rooney was already eligible for retirement when I bought my copy of "Elements" as a freshman in college.
At that time (circa 1991), "The Elements of Style" was still widely assigned or strongly recommended as a a writing guide for students. I remember being struck by its stodgy, old-fashioned, authoritative tone. But eventually I learned to respect that authority and the book's overall purpose, which was to promote clear, precise and thoughtful writing — which has a tendency to promote clear, precise and thoughtful thinking.
Adam Winslow, the city editor here at The Leader-Herald, likes to quote a passage from "The Elements" that he was required to memorize back in journalism school:
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 his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
These days, "Elements" has many competitors, such as Diana Hacker's "Rules for Writers," which contains largely the same information but presents it in a less formal, less didactic way. It's also much easier to flip through Hacker and find something you need in a hurry, which is a useful trait for a reference work. Maybe E.B. White's problem was that he made "Elements" more of a manifesto than a handbook.
Even so, I guess I drank the Kool-Aid right along with Andy Rooney and thousands of other writers.
Did you ever notice that Mr. Rooney's stream of consciousness doesn't always flow in a straight line? His toast-dry columns and deadpan commentaries are rife with eccentric asides and other things most writers couldn't get away with doing. But it works for him. The cantankerous Mr. Rooney tops my list of lovable elder journalists. Helen Thomas and Larry King are up there, too (it's a short list; surely most journalists are laid low by stress-related health problems before they reach such a ripe age).
See? A tangent like that would have seemed right at home in an Andy Rooney column, but not here. Let's get back to this business about books for writers. I'd like to mention a few other favorites:
1. "On Writing Well," by William Zinsser. For my money, this is the book for writers. Zinsser preaches the same gospel as Strunk & White, but to the essential virtues of concision, precision and clarity, he adds "human warmth." No small addition, when you think about.
2. "Sin and Syntax," by Constance Hale. I recently borrowed this from the the library at FMCC, and I'm enjoying it. Hale spices things up by providing examples of texts that break the rules of grammar in clever and effective ways.
3. "Eats, Shoots & Leaves," by Lynne Truss. I found this book enjoyable (especially for its many tidbits about the history of the English language), even though it seems to have been written by one British grammar snob for the amusement of other British grammar snobs.
4. "The New Well-Tempered Sentence": A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed," by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. A collection of oddball sentences and the grammar rules they exemplify. Fun in small doses.
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