Strunk and White were wrong. Sort of.

(NaNoWriMo cheerleading post for November 15 – comment on this post if you would like me to address a specific topic)

One of the first things teachers recommend to would-be writers is the purchase of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.  It’s a nice little book.  Sort of.  Except that in many important ways, it gives terrible advice and has given ammunition to far too many rigid nit-pickers.  And it contradicts itself.  Oh, yeah, and it’s often wrong.  I do like it, but it’s not as good as people think it is.

If you want to read a much better rant than I could write on the subject, read Geoffrey Pullum’s rant in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.” *

Go ahead and read it.  It’s a perfectly fine book.  I particularly like the advice to “omit needless words,” which Pullum hates.  Here’s my take on the advice:

Choose your words and say exactly what you mean.

A simple declarative sentence can whack a hole through a mountain, if it actually says something that has meaning.  And in order to convey meaning, choose wisely and leave out the inessentials.  And please do not mistake comprehensiveness for accuracy.

That is, when you start describing someone’s living room, choose just the details that will get across what that living room means.  Which one means something:  Description 1 or Description 2 below?

  1.  My living room has a blond wood sofa and armchair with oatmeal fabric cushions, a decorative but inexpensive Mission-style rug, hard wood floors, and a television set.  Opposite the armchair is another sofa covered in a green and beige striped fabric.  The ceilings are high.  My husband likes to sit on the other sofa and watch television.  The cats sleep on the furniture most of the day.
  2. The back of a striped sofa has been squashed down six inches by the cat who squatting on top of it (hallucinating, hungry, fat, fluffy).  Three remote controls, a pair of veterinary nail clippers, and the case for “Dude, Where’s My Car?” are on the credenza.  Another cat (small, ragged, missing teeth, with a lopsided sneer) has commandeered the armchair and is glaring at the world.  The rug is made entirely out of cat hair.  And my husband, wedged in the corner of the other sofa, is eating Nestle Sugar Wafers, watching “Judge Judy” with an air of grim determination, and rubbing my feet.

Honest, my living room is pretty nice and when my husband vacuums, the cat smell is barely detectable.  But you can get a sense, in the second paragraph, of what is important to the participants in the scene.  The first paragraph sounds like instructions for staging an empty house.

Next up:  Keep going.  You’re doing great.

*Isn’t that a nice title?  What a fine title.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *