Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Elements of Style

This is possibly my favorite book.

My friend Kevin gave me this illustrated edition for my birthday a few years ago.
The Elements of Style is a tiny book, mostly a list of rules about grammar and punctuation. It tells you the difference between further and farther, lie and lay, nauseous and nauseated, and that most crucial distinction between shall and will. It has lists of rules, such as:
12. Choose a suitable design and hold to it.

13. Make the paragraph the unit of composition.

14. Use the active voice.

15. Put statements in positive form.

16. Use definite, specific, concrete language.

17. Omit needless words.
I go back to this book every few months, whether or not I'm writing anything at the time. I tend to pick it up when I'm mired in some kind of unfinishable project, when I am too overwhelmed with life to begin reading a novel or too unfocused to read poetry. (It was the only book I could even pick up after my friend Stephen died, suddenly and far away, over three years ago now. I read it over and over, because it was small and concrete and certain, and life was big and vague and confused.)

Each of Strunk and White's rules is followed by examples of good writing that follows the rules and bad writing that doesn't. Sometimes, though, our heroes deviate from the plain examples to explain why the rule is important to the world. Here is one of my favorite passages in the entire book:
Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expected to be met at a railway station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram. Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity, and be clear! When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.

The illustrator of the most beautiful edition of The Elements of Style is Maira Kalman, who is proof that I am not the only one fixated on this book. She has also made a short film based on her illustrations, which I stumbled upon via The Kitchn:

And here is Maira Kalman talking about her life and art. She talks about The Elements of Style about 8 minutes into the talk.

Her illustrations look like the inside of my brain.


Thomas said...

This reminds me of a King of the Hill quoted. Peggy says, "No one can come into my house and correct my grammar unless their names are Strunk or White." I had to get a copy for Intelligence Writing.

merey kay said...

so i'm just starting to read blogs again and i forgot how great yours is. thanks for sharing!

and cake!