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What Are Words Worth?

Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, Mark Garvey, Touchstone, 240 pages

“Omit needless words”—the gnomic Rule Thirteen in William Strunk’s original 1918 self-published edition of The Elements of Style—is the kind of advice that means less and less the more you think about it. Which words are needless? What need are we talking about? Just conveying information or mood, too? Sublunary matters or glimpses of God?

Strunk’s exposition of Rule Thirteen seems sensible, at least initially:

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 his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

But these sentences soften under steady gaze. Vigorous writing is not always concise. Gibbon is not concise. Dickens can be, but isn’t always. Unnecessary sentences abound in good writing, or some kinds of good writing—the kind that is companionable, humane, allusive, and willing to treat the reader as a friend, not a customer.

Catch Strunk’s metaphors: no unnecessary sentences “for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” This is a man writing at the dawn of the machine age. Aesthetic modernism is in the air, and it looks a lot like the noonday sun, blinding its devotees to the joys of checkered shade, nature’s profusion of unnecessary lines, and the delights of machines scrolled with ornament and exuberantly ticking parts that are added because they are possible, not because they are necessary.

Strunk’s is the voice of stern minimalism, a reaction against overstuffed Victorian furniture and a culture blurred into rhetorical complacency. Strunk (1869-1946) was a near contemporary of the famously laconic Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933)—one of the few observations about Strunk’s Great Rule that Mark Garvey does not make in Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.

Garvey, however, is at his best in those passages where he attempts to take the heft of Strunk’s preference for the spare. The Elements of Style, he says, “embodies a worldview.” He explains:

It is a book of promises—a promise that creative freedom is enabled, not hindered, by putting your faith in a few helpful rules; the promise that careful, clear thinking and writing can occasionally touch truth; the promise of depth in simplicity and beauty in plainness; and the promise that by turning away from artifice and ornamentation you will find your true voice.

Garvey is surely right to locate the enduring appeal of The Elements of Style in these largely unspoken promises. He is also right to pick out “Omit needless words” as the pivot of the Strunkian universe. That three-word command, he says, “continues to ring like a Lao Tzu aphorism at the book’s center.” I have known academic colleagues in whom this Zen-like rule, in its exacting, Bauhaus-on-the-page austerity, has taken full possession. They comb and re-comb every paragraph seeking perfect nudity. They do not rest until every vestment is torn away and every noun and verb stands blushing naked. And what remains is indeed clear and readable, like tracks in the desert sands.

Garvey never quite comes to terms with the desertification of English prose wrought by Strunk & White cultists. Perhaps it is because he is himself a devotee—though not the hard-core sort whose adoration of the purging of needless words leads their prose ever closer to that epitome of concision, the white pages of the telephone book. Instead, Garvey pleads the case that, rightly understood, Strunk’s edict is capacious. It allows for good writing of many types and in many voices. Rule Thirteen is about clearing away clutter, uprooting obstacles, and bringing blessed order to the roiling chaos of our unfinished thoughts.

When Garvey urges this winsome Strunk—Strunk-the-judicious—my heart melts. But then I wonder: why have so many earnest people studied The Elements of Style and come away convinced that good writing involves squeezing every last drop from the grapefruit and then eating the rind? Do Strunk and his famous student E.B. White bear no responsibility for this heresy? After all, they preached a creed of clarity. Shouldn’t their book be clear about its purpose? But if Garvey is right, a lot of readers have gone astray in The Elements of Style. They have imagined it a fundamentalist sect, when it is truly just an older brother’s counsel.

I am unsettled on this point. As a sometime teacher of English rhetoric, I have had students who benefit from Strunk’s edicts. But what today’s students seem to need most is hard practice under the close supervision of someone who helps them see their mistakes.

Students also need to come to terms with metaphor. Almost everything we write, if it is any good, points beyond itself to larger realities. Even if an essay doesn’t deploy noticeable metaphors, it can lift the reader and carry him somewhere only if, deep down, it is metaphor. So when Garvey reads The Elements of Style as a metaphor for the goodness of clear thinking, simplicity, and truth, I sigh in admiration. Yes, Garvey has read The Elements aright. But The Elements of Style itself is unwilling to avow this truth. Nothing in the original book agitates against the role of metaphor in good writing; it just treats it as a not very pressing topic.

This makes it all the more surprising that E.B. White’s greatest gift as a writer was the graceful metaphor. Nearly everything he wrote, from his hundreds of “Notes and Comment” pieces for The New Yorker to his melancholically beautiful children’s book Charlotte’s Web, breathes metaphor. Yet when he became Strunk’s posthumous collaborator in the 1959 edition of The Elements of Style, he keeps his counsel. White’s major addition to the book was a chapter titled “An Approach to Style,” swapped in as a new chapter five to replace a chapter six in the original, “Words Often Misspelled.”

White’s advice has the quality of Polonius giving young Laertes the bromide, “To thine own self be true.” Well, ok. That’s a lot better than, “Doll it up. Turn on. See how many outrageous selves you can conjure from the fragments of your disintegrating personality.” And compared to some of what is now on offer in English composition courses, the anodyne advice that White gives is bracing stuff. “Place yourself in the background,” he declares. Can the children and grandchildren of narcissists manage that trick after 12 years of self-esteem training and the urging of teachers to dwell endlessly on their marvelous selves? White prompts some to try, and that would be reason alone to treasure the little book.

“Write with nouns and verbs.” Usually. “Avoid fancy words.” I wonder about that. White himself avoided them, but reader and writer alike can take pleasure in finding the unknown apt word. We sometimes itch for it. I’ve longed for years to find a word that means “the moon as seen in daylight.” I haven’t found it, but I’ve found the word that means the part of the body you cannot reach to scratch. White’s approach to style is lucid and encouraging, but has its own acnestis.

Would Garvey’s book about Strunk and White pass muster with Strunk and White? It seems an obvious question and one that appears to have been on Garvey’s mind. Scattered through the volume are passages that sound like Garvey’s slightly overwrought attempts to perform Strunk and Whitean prose:

A small box in the Cornell archives holds a few of Strunk’s surviving papers and notebooks. They provide clear evidence of an ordered, scholarly mind singularly focused on the academic passions that drove him. His doctoral thesis is here: 155 typed, double-spaced pages titled The Anglo-Saxon Remains of Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, a readable study limning the influence of the likes of Pseudo-Matthew and the Apocalypse of Paul on the like of Bede and Cynewulf. The notebooks contain his thoughts in a hasty but legible hand—small, imperfect, angular, flecked with bits of Greek, Latin, Old English—for lectures or for writing projects, notes on Kipling, Dante, Greek drama, Buddhism, Shakespeare.

Garvey, author of Come Together: The Official John Lennon Educational Tour Bus Guide to Music and Video, doesn’t seem the sort of guy who would say “flecked with bits of Greek” unless he were trying to be something other than himself. He faults Strunk at only one point—for “equating good with manly” in the sentence, “The first virtue, the touchstone of masculine style, is its use of the active verb and the concrete noun.” Not very manly of you Mark, to smack down a long-dead writer for failing to abide by today’s gender shibboleths.

Garvey also stumbles by cluttering his book with testimonials from various writers of the moment—Alec Wilkerson, Dave Barry, Elmore Leonard, Ian Frazier, Adam Gopnik, the noxious Nicholson Baker, Damon Lindelof, Frank McCourt, Will Blythe, and Sharon Olds. They have nothing to say in this context that rewards the time it takes to read them. Their contributions read very much like a collection of edited e-mails in which Garvey plays to their vanity.

These faults are redeemed perhaps by one extended passage in which Garvey defends the ethical soundness of Strunk and White’s project against the English faculty of today: “Many English departments have really taken great literature away from the students; it’s just horrifying.” Garvey finds some genuine fervor here, “You can’t have society without rationality. And rationality demands clarity.” Strunk and White are the great voices for clarity in composition against “the whirlwind of ‘theory.’”

Thrumming away inside this book about style is a most unstylish idea, but an idea that is also one of the most durable, encouraging, and commonsensical notions ever to inspire a student or fire the mind of a writer: the belief that careful, clear thinking and writing can uncover the truth.

I am not sure “thrumming” is the right word, but this is surely the right idea. __________________________________________

Peter W. Wood is executive director of the National Association of Scholars and author of A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now.

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