Thursday, 21 April 2011

3rd time lucky with Strunk & White

Here's a tale of persistence with a happy ending!

A couple of years back, when I was in America, I was shown a fine, pocket-sized book, brimming with excellent advice on language use, called The Elements of Style.  It had been written and self-published by William Strunk, who'd used it when teaching English to his students at Cornell University, amongst whom, in 1919, was E.B.White.  Forty years later, White - by that time an editor for the New Yorker - was persuaded by Macmillan Publishing to revise and publish this slim volume... and it has remained a popular title ever since, with regular (minor) revisions to update the relevance of the examples, and numerous reprintings.

I could see why and, given that most of my understanding of English usage has been picked up on the fly, as it were, I thought this would be a valuable book to own.

Last year, I called in to a bookshop in a city not too far from where I live, and ordered three books.  I was after Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, and Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.  None of the books were on the shelves, but I thought it'd be good to support the High Street bookshop rather than order online.  This began inauspiciously as the shop assistant had never heard of any of the authors or titles and seemed to think that J.D. Salinger was a book by Franny and Zooey, but we found the titles (online) in the end and they were duly ordered.  Two weeks later, I collected the Vonnegut and the Salinger, but was advised there'd be a delay with The Elements of Style.  However, when I looked at the invoice, I noticed they were intending to charge me over $70.00 for the edition they'd tracked down, and so (although they weren't happy about this) I cancelled the order on the spot.  After all, I'd priced The Elements of Style at approximately $15.00 on Amazon.

To Amazon I duly went, ordered, paid - the entire biz - and was quickly advised it was on its way.  But I waited and waited... until I received an email from them telling me that the package had been returned and could I please check that address details were correct.

They were.  I'd received quite a few packages from Amazon to the address I'd provided, so it shouldn't have posed a problem.  Upon digging a little deeper, I found that the package had been 'returned to sender' by Deutsche Poste and that, on this occasion, Amazon had abbreviated the 'Australia' line of my address to 'AU' and had then posted it to Austria.

I gave up for several months, but decided recently that I really would like this book, and so thought I'd give Amazon another try.  And Hey Presto! it's arrived: a beautiful hard cover, fiftieth anniversary edition for less than $12.00 (thanks to the strong Australian dollar).

It hasn't disappointed.

Here's a sample (without all the examples) from Chapter II - Elementary Principles of Composition:
17.  Omit needless words
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 sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Many expressions in common use violate this principle ... The fact that is an especially debilitating expression.  It should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs ... As the active voice is more concise than the passive, and a positive statement more concise than a negative one, many of the examples given under Rules 14 and 15 illustrate this rule as well...


Mike French said...

O my gosh well done for not giving up!

I love this book and use it all the time - it's my writing bible so to speak.

Paul said...

Well, given that 'In the beginning was the word' and all that, why not.

Happy Easter, sir!

Jane Turley said...

Okay, I need to get that book - Amazon (I must be their best customer!) here I come!

I have to say - the line " J D Salinger was a book by Franny and Zooey " was a corker.

Paul said...

Let me know whether it works for you too, Jane. Btw, I hope they don't send it to Uganda or Granada by mistake :-)

Jodie said...

Back in the late 80s my masters supervisor recommended this book and I bought a copy - read it twice and think of it often. By coincidence was trying to find my copy yesterday to loan to a (wordy) workmate, but I think its already on loan somewhere. The hard copy 50th edition for $12 sounds tempting.
Use less words, use less words, use less words. Editing feels like good sculpture.

Paul said...

That's a problem with loaning favourite books: they sometimes become someone else's favourite!

I particularly like that phrase, Jodie - "editing feels like good sculpture." That's it exactly.

Thanks for dropping in and leaving a comment.