Thursday, April 16, 2009

Got style?

Today, April 16, marks the 50th anniversary of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White's much beloved book, The Elements of Style. This little book became indispensable when I started working for a book publishing house almost 10 years ago. I constantly referred to it every time I'm faced with a manuscript that required major editing. Sure we had The Chicago Manual of Style, a doorstop at more than 1,000 pages, but CMOS is more focused on the convention to be employed in books (placing footnotes, coming up with the index, acknowledging sources in bibliography, using punctuation marks and rules of capitalization, etc.).

The Elements of Style is divided into five sections, and the section on the rules of usage is particularly helpful to the grammatically challenged. This section is somewhat prescriptive though, which may put off people who are all for language leniency (I'm not one of them though). Still, the book is a wonderful resource for people who want to check if they accidentally used a comma splice, broke a perfectly good sentence into two dependent clauses, and used a plural verb after "everybody," "someone," and "none," just to name a few.

The section on commonly misused words and expressions is still very much relevant. Can you use "that" and "which" alternately? Strunk and White say no, as there are nuances to the words' usage -- "that" is for restrictive clauses. Also, the authors' explanation on the difference between "nevertheless" and "however" is enlightening. You may, however, need to reread this section just to fully remember its several entries. Nevertheless, I assure you that the effort is worth it. And yes, "inflammable" and "flammable" mean the same thing; although "flammable" is more commonly seen printed on trucks that carry inflammable substances.

The sections on writing somehow fell short of my expectations after reading the black-and-white rules presented in earlier parts. The writing tips tend to be general and, well, bordering on common sense. Consider this rule: avoid foreign language. Unless you're a pretentious twat, you wouldn't dare include expressions such as "C'est formidable!" and "Entschuldigung" just to say "That's great!" and "Excuse me."

I've often recommended this book to people I work with, especially those who recently graduated from college and want to have a career in writing. We all want to write clearly. We all want to follow proper English standards, write tighter sentences, and avoid clutter in our writing that will simply confuse the reader. Reading The Elements of Style is the first step to achieving these.

Apparently, some people have a bone to pick with Struck and White. Check out one writer's angry critique of the book here.

Get this book if:
  1. Writing is your means of livelihood.
  2. You appreciate the beauty of grammatically correct construction.
  3. You love your reader.


Thomas said...

I am know I don't always get it right, but Strunk and White is the best. Everyone who ever writes anything should be forced to read it.