“The Elements of Style” by William Strunk
Reviewed by: Professor Anne Hays, Evening/Weekend Instruction Librarian
I can recall buying the Elements of Style twice: once in college (I kept it in my top desk drawer and consulted it frequently while writing English papers) and once again after moving to New York City. I was not in school when I bought it the second time—I felt increasingly concerned that I was misplacing commas in my sentences, and I wanted to finally have a handle on them. At that time I had a list of things I wanted to master: flipping an omelet perfectly, hemming a pair of pants non-crookedly, and gaining perfect command of my commas. And so I was delighted to discover that this slim and unassuming volume had been updated to include the marvelous work of illustrator Maira Kalman, enhanced with a bold red hardcover. If there’s anything I love more than a perfectly flipped omelet, it’s a craftily designed hardcover book. I was going to master the comma in style.
The Elements of Style is a famously trim set of rules guiding both correct grammar and writerly best practices. The book advocates clear and precise sentences over long, languid, overwrought, or florid writing that seems to ramble on in an unconcerned fashion, unaware of whether its reader has long ago wandered off (have you?) As E.B. White states in his introduction to the 1979 text, “In its original form, it was a forty-three page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English. Today, fifty-two years later, its vigor is unimpaired, and for sheer pith I think it probably sets a record that is not likely to be broken.” The book has gained a cult-like following of practitioners, including Roger Angell, who wrote the introduction to the newest 2005 edition. “How often I have turned to [these rules], in the book or in my mind, while trying to start or unblock or revise some piece of my own writing! They help—they really do. They work. They are the way.”
While the rules themselves provide a clear and straightforward set of practices, Maira Kalman’s illustrations make them fun. Consider her illustration that accompanies the sentence, “His first thought on getting out of bed—if he had any thought at all—was to get back in again.”
One can immediately empathize with his plight, which brings to life this handy rule: “Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary. A dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than a parenthesis.” Suddenly I find it fun to break up my sentences—if I care to make a casual aside—into sections separated by dashes! As for my commas, I learned that I was using them correctly, for the most part. But Kalman’s sweetly drawn dog certainly helps me understand that a name or a title in direct address is parenthetic.
“Well, Susan, this is a fine mess you’re in.”
-Anne Hays, Assistant Professor and Evening/Weekend Instruction Librarian