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. 🙂


Breakfast with Strunk and White

I guess it’s not typical to have a Breakfast Picnic, but I was in the mood, the sun was calling, and the green beans needed eating, so I had one. An orange, a glass of milk, and a handful of green beans are perfect for a Saturday morning picnic, no?

Strunk and White joined me; it was a delightful conversation, and I discovered some new tidbits about punctuation.

According to these two gentlemen, the following principles are the most important “that govern punctuation. They should be so thoroughly mastered that their application comes second nature.”

Rule 3: “Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.” Second nature. Done. Boom.

Rule 4: “Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.” Thank goodness I learned this one in high school!

Rule 5: “Do not join independent clauses with a comma.” Also understood in high school. Boom. 🙂

Rule 6: “Do not break sentences in two.” (“In other words, do not use periods for commas.”)

I believe these are pretty straight forward, pretty understood, and pretty basic. I think I can handle them. Yes?

Also, here are some of Strunk and White’s thoughts on colons and dashes:

“The colon has more effect than the comma, less power to separate than the semicolon, and more formality than the dash.”

“A dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses.”

Mr. Strunk and Mr. White, it was delightful dining with you under the Missouri Saturday sky, and I do hope to chat again very soon!

White on Strunk

Did you know William Strunk Jr. taught E. B. White at Cornell University? I didn’t before today.

Furthermore, did you know that Strunk wrote the original “The Elements of Style,” using it in his classroom as early as 1919? Nope. I didn’t know that either.

It wasn’t until 1957 that this little textbook became Strunk and White’s Elements of Style when White was commissioned to revise it for the general public.

Today it is the most well known, I would say, style guide. Even students who are not English majors have heard of it.

I guess I am about to discover why.

Oh, and for the record, it is the fourth book on my “To Read” list! YAH! 🙂