Elements of Style

I posted on facebook the other day, “Having breakfast with Strunk & White,” and some people thought my breakfast was a very fine wine while others insisted, “Your style is great. Why are you reading about it?”

Apparently, not everyone has taken an English composition class, tried to understand poetry, had a father who collected books galore, or  searched for top punctuation books online. Apparently, not everyone has heard of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.

The illustration version is beautiful; yes, I must be an English major to say a punctuation book is beautiful, but Maira Kalman did a great job. The pictures spice up the black and white pages, and in a creative way, they explain some of the rules. They make me laugh. They are colorful, out there, a little Picasso thrown in beside the Hemingway and Whitman. Art at its finest.

The rules are to the point. Some of them are obvious. Don’t make two independent clauses one sentence with just a comma in the middle. Everyone should know this. It’s like a run on sentence with a little bump in the middle, not enough to stop the train of thought and tell it, “There’s a new thought coming up.” Some of them, for me, were new or at least a little rusty. “Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.” Um. Okay. If I should.

More than a punctuation handbook, Strunk and White define style, a much stickier part of writing. Anyone can say, “Don’t cut a sentence in two.” That is common sense. What doesn’t make sense is, “When can I break the rules?” When can I, as the author, throw something out there, something uncommon, something unheard of, something that no one has used before?

Strunk and White say, “Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind?”

It’s next to impossible, isn’t it? Yet S & W attempt it. Or they offer hints and ideas of what good style looks like. I think style is half-learned, half-given, and half-fought for, yet their thoughts are very helpful, and I plan to keep them in mind.

Also, this book will join my library shelves someday–illustrations and all–and I plan on referring to it during my own career and recommending it to any careers watching my shaky footsteps. 🙂

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