rules book
The Elements of Style by Strunk & White, 4th ed. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Rules are not my thing. The first time I read The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, I was in high school. But because Francine Prose put it on her list of Books to Be Read Immediately and even though she’s currently not comme il faut, I decided to follow her advice.

Rules of grammar are like traffic signs. There are good reasons to obey them but sometimes a violation or two can’t be helped. As the saying goes, rules are meant to be broken. But you can’t break them if you don’t know what they are.

golden rules

The Elements of Style first came into existence in 1919. At the time, it was a 43 page pamphlet self-published by William Strunk, Jr., an English professor at Cornell. After Strunk died, E.B. White (of Charlotte’s Web fame) revised it for use by college students in 1959. The fourth edition came out in 1999 with a foreword written by Roger Angell, long-time fiction editor of The New Yorker and presently still kicking around at the age of 98.

This is an old book.

It was written at at time when college students wanted to be told how to write. Authors liked it, too. Dorothy Parker once said:

If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.

But these days, the dictatorial style grates. The Elements of Style has been trashed as an aging zombie of a book and its authors as downright incompetent. When lecturing, Strunk had the habit of repeating himself and, when faced with the prospect of mispronouncing a word, offered this advice to his students:

If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, say it loud! If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!

He sounds like the original Ugly American.

idiosyncratic rules

But for every off-note (and there are a few), there are hilariously idiosyncratic rules and reminders. Chapter IV is a catalogue of Words and Expressions Commonly Misused. Take, for example, the word interesting.

An unconvincing word; avoid it as a means of introduction. Instead of announcing that what you are about to tell is interesting, make it so. […] Also to be avoided in introduction is the word funny. Nothing becomes funny by being labeled so.

Or the difference between the terms nauseous and nauseated.

The first means “sickening to contemplate”; the second means “sick to the stomach.” Do not, therefore, say, “I feel nauseous,” unless you are sure you have that effect on others.

Do you know your commas? Rule number 2 explains:

In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.

Or, as they say in Oxford, use a comma, save a life.


comma rules
Oxford comma

rules to break

Rule 6: do not use sentence fragments. Rule 14: use the active voice. Reminder 20: avoid foreign languages. These are all rules I have broken and intend to keep on breaking. But I don’t think either Strunk or White would mind. Their final chapter is on style and the tone of instruction suddenly becomes humble.

Here we leave solid ground. Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind?

The young writer is urged to avoid thinking about style. Because style can’t be acquired nor can it be faked through the use of flashy language or gimmicky devices. Like a shadow, style emanates from the writer herself and cannot be detached from her person. It can only be sensed when and if the writer is ready to step into the light.

All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation — it is the Self escaping into the open.