My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
When you hear the stunted, semi-grunting way many speak – and write! – these days, the language of a book such as The Elements of Style seems to come from a different planet. What’s the point of clarifying the correct usage of “which’ and “that” when someone can’t utter a sentence that doesn’t have f**k in it? And I am not being overly fussy. My formal knowledge of grammar is as rudimentary as many people’s and I don’t worry much about rules – so long as I can make clear what it is I’m trying to communicate. And I’d suggest that dumbing down the language does not make anyone more expressive or articulate. Exactly the opposite. Language is a wonderful achievement of humankind. Words are the building blocks of society – there can’t be society if people can’t communicate. To hear or to read someone using any language well can be sheer delight. It’s the difference between a maestro on the violin, an amateur player and a hacker. If you want to improve your skills with language, it helps to have formal training, and William Shrunk Jr.’s classic book has served millions of people since it was first published in 1918.
Strunk’s original text was completed revised by E. B. White in an updated edition published 51 years ago. What makes The Elements of Style so effective and therefore has maintained its popularity is the clarity of their guidance. Many people imagine that rules are for fools and not for them. They point to celebrity authors famous for not following the rules. Yet, as Strunk pointed out, “The best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing it well, he will probably do best to follow the rules.”
This is not merely rules for the sake of rules:
“Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worked roadsign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram…When you say something, make sure you have said it.”
Much of the trouble comes, I believe, from a flagrant contempt for the listener or the reader. If someone can’t be bothered to spell correctly or to observe common conventions of a language that make the writer’s meaning clear, is that not showing contempt for their audience? “(Strunk) felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, a man floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get his man up on dry ground, or at least to throw him a rope,” writes White in his Introduction.
The Elements of Style has only 71 pages yet its impact on the English language, particularly in North America, has been profound. The book has guided millions of people who cared enough to pick up the book and read it in order to write and to speak with more control, strength and effectiveness.
The book ranges from explaining that parenthetic expressions should be enclosed between commas – “The best way to see a country, unless you are pressed for time, is to travel on foot.” – to a list of cautions. These include avoiding fancy words, not using dialect in speech unless you really can accomplish the challenge, and above all, being clear. “Clarity is not the prize in writing, not is it always the principal mark of a good style…But since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue.”
The revised edition of The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. was published in 1959 by Macmillian and Co.