Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company
The Boston Globe
October 23, 2005, Sunday THIRD EDITION
SECTION: IDEAS; Pg. E3
LENGTH: 734 words
BYLINE: By Jan Freeman
JUST IN TIME for Halloween, it's back: Yet another edition of "The Elements
of Style," William Strunk and E.B. White's persistently popular guidebook for
writers. And this time it's in costume, decked out with dozens of gay, whimsical
illustrations by Maira Kalman (interviewed in this week's Examined Life column).
But "The Elements"'s new clothes can't hide the worsening limp and spackled
complexion that plague this aging zombie of a book. It was never a seamless
creation, to be sure; the 1959 first edition merely sandwiched Strunk's 1918
handbook for his Cornell students, lightly edited, between White's introduction
and his essay on prose style. But at least you knew Strunk was Strunk, vintage
1918, and White was White, circa 1958. Succeeding revisions, instead of blending
the disparate parts, have left "Elements" a hodgepodge, its now-antiquated pet
peeves jostling for space with 1970s taboos and 1990s computer advice.
(The illustrated "Elements" is essentially the 1999 edition, with a couple of
small restorations from the 1918 original. Not quite a restoration, alas, in the
case of Strunk's introduction: The proofreaders overlooked one of his "Words
Often Misspelled," so the opening sentence now promises "to give in brief space
the principle requirements of plain English style." Scanning the recent
editions, you sometimes wonder what could possibly have been cut, given the
absurdity of what remains. Don't use claim to mean "assert"? Mark Twain did it
in 1869, the year Strunk was born. Don't contact anyone? It's a "vague and
self-important" verb-or so people said in the 1920s, when it was new. Don't use
they to refer to "a distributive subject" like everybody-unless you're E.B.
White: "But somebody taught you, didn't they?" says a character in "
Even Strunk's signature battle cry-"Omit needless words!"-is question-begging
bluster: Which are the needless words? Needless for whom? That's the hard
decision, and S&W's editing examples do not inspire confidence. Surely "He often
came late" is not always better than "He was not very often on time." And as any
courtroom witness could testify, "I did not remember" doesn't equal "I forgot."
We're told we must write "It looked more like a cormorant than like a heron
"-because, I surmise, without the second like the sentence might mean "It looked
more like a cormorant than a heron looks like a cormorant." Should that remote
possibility loom in a stretch of actual prose, of course we can repeat the like,
but how often does it happen? A Google search suggests that writers add the
second like only about once in 100 such comparisons-and not all of those likes
Could this messy monster have evolved into a different beast? Probably not;
White was in a trap the moment he started revising the 1959 "Elements." That
book could stand as a quirky appreciation of White's old teacher, its dated
items just amusing historical artifacts. White surely knew that some of Strunk's
crotchets-his insistence on I shall, say, or his rule that however, meaning
"nevertheless," could not begin a sentence-were becoming untenable; but they
were Strunk being Strunk.
But if White, in his revisions, admitted that aggravate could mean irritate
(as it did in 1611), or that I could care less was not a mystifying mistake, his
usage notes would lose their essential Strunkiness, that bluff certainty that
had hooked him in the first place.
So rather than join the reality-based usage community, White stuck with
Strunkian dogmatism. Hence a book that tells us, in 2005, that offputting and
ongoing are illegitimate; that hopefully is beyond the pale; and that six people
is a solecism because there's no such thing as one people.
Why does this sort of thing send reviewers into raptures? Maybe they
remember, from their college days, a reassuringly slim volume that pretended it
could solve their writing problems. The "Strunkian attitude toward
right-and-wrong," in White's eccentrically hyphenated phrase, may still stir in
readers the eternal hope that someone, somewhere, knows what he's doing.
If that certainty is what you liked about your old Strunk and White, you'll
find it, only slightly eroded, in the newly dolled-up "Elements." But the
artwork is merely a colorful shroud on a corpse that's overdue for burial. May
it rest in peace, someday soon.