Strunk and White

Our editorial hearts were warmed by Jonathan Yardley’s recent paean to The Elements of Style, the classic style guide first privately published by Will Strunk in 1918 and made famous upon its republication in 1959 with “Revisions, an Introduction, and a New Chapter on Writing” by Strunk’s former student, E. B. White. Popularly and affectionately known as “Strunk and White,” the book is one of the scriptures of the English-language editing world, and unlike other such scriptures (cf. Fowler’s Dictionary; The Chicago Manual of Style), has the virtue of being incredibly short. Indeed, it is best known for its immortal Strunkian dictum: “Omit needless words”—a line that echoes in editors’ heads with more authority, and greater concision, than any of the Ten Commandments.

One expects such stern admonitions from Strunk, a career professor and grammarian; White’s involvement with the book can be more puzzling to modern readers accustomed to remembering (or imagining) him as a charming old man who sat in barnyards spinning children’s tales. And yet White was many things during his lifetime: a Cornell student, a journalist, an ad man, a sailor, a New Yorker sophisticate, and above all, a marvelous writer. His advice on diction is folksier than Strunk’s, but no less austere: “Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.” Around here, we feel that rule’s honored more in the breach than the observance, but White himself rarely broke it; think of the final lines of Charlotte’s Web:

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

Surely one of the best endings of any twentieth-century novel, this is also a model of Strunk-and-White plainness. We have to admit that, even now, it always makes us cry—not for the spider, of course, but for the economy of the prose.

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