Saturday, January 9, 2010


The full title of the book is Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style. My mother gave it to me for Christmas, and it's a sign of what a grammar geek I am that I was excited about getting this book.

The author, Mark Garvey, is very enthusiastic about his topic, to the point that he gushes a little too much. He needs to heed Strunk's brilliant rule of "Omit needless words" in many places.

Even though I regard Elements as one of my go-to books when I'm editing, I never really knew the history behind it. When Stunk was a professor at Cornell, he self-published a slim little pamphlet filled with writing rules and style suggestions. He thought it would make grading papers easier, because he and other professors could just scribble "see rule #2" in the margins of papers instead of explaining every editing mark again and again.

E.B. White, author of the children's classics Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web among others, and long-time writer for "The New Yorker" magazine, had Strunk as a professor when he was at Cornell. He and Strunk kept in touch through the years, and long after Strunk's death, White wrote an essay for "The New Yorker" about Strunk and his little pamphlet. The rest is writing history.

Garvey was given access by Cornell and by the Strunk and White families to letters between the two authors and letters to and from the publishers and fans/critics of the book. And, really, those were the best part of this little book. In the letters you can see the affection that both authors had for each other and for the English language.

After I finished this book, I pulled out my well-worn copy of Elements and thumbed through it again. Reading White's introduction and Strunk's rules of usage really makes me want to be a better writer. As White contends, in order to be a good writer, you have to understand the rules, even if only to break them. Too many "writers" today don't have a grasp of the basics of language and usage. They should all be given copies of the little book.

A side note - in my life before kids I worked as an editor for the Texas Attorney General's Office. I reviewed all publications the agency produced and other documents on demand. One day, an attorney asked me to take a few moments to review a letter he was getting ready to send to members of the state legislature. I made a few edits and handed the letter back. He disagreed with one of my edits and questioned me on it. I informed him of the rule I was following, and he asked to see proof that it was really a rule. So I brought out my Elements and showed him the relevant entry. This is the conversation we had at that point:

Him: What year was that published?
Me: 1979 (the third edition)
Him: Well, the book is out of date.
Me: Grammar rules don't go out of date.
Him: I went to Harvard Law School.
Me: Congratulations, but you're still wrong on this.
Him: Well, I'm doing it my way.
Me: Fine. It's your name on the letter, not mine.

I found out later he complained about me to my boss, who told him that I was correct in my edit and to stop asking me to review his letters if he wasn't going to take my advice. Ha - score one for the grammar geeks!


Susan/SC said...
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Just Mom said...

Hmm - interesting comment above! Saw your comment about the A-Z challenge and wanted to tell you that Q is easy for a historical fiction lover - all sorts of Queen books but yes, that X is already on my mind! I'm feeling the pressure already!

Anonymous said...