Historical Context

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The New Yorker’s Golden Age As The Elements of Style has long been a classic style manual, The New Yorker has long been the standard-bearer of American magazine journalism. Harold Ross founded The New Yorker in 1925 and was its editor until his death in 1951. Ross envisioned the magazine as funny, literate, and sophisticated, and he famously said that it was not ‘‘for the old lady in Dubuque.’’ White began writing for the magazine in its first year and continued to do so until his death in 1985. He is widely credited In addition, online news sources provide constantly updated news. Consumers can watch movies and other entertainment at home any time via videocassettes, DVDs, and cable and satellite movie channels, and, increasingly, on the Internet. All in all, Americans read less and watch more than they did in the past. with creating the magazine’s distinctive style. The New Yorker has been so influential that generations of aspiring writers have looked to it for guidance and inspiration, much as they have looked to Strunk and White’s book.

The late 1950s, when The Elements of Style was first published, was something of a golden age in American magazine journalism. At the time, the editor of The New Yorker was William Shawn. The magazine had about 450,000 subscribers—a huge number for a magazine that was ostensibly written and edited for the residents of a single city—and enough advertising to make it solidly profitable. As has been true throughout its history, The New Yorker published some of the period’s best writers, including John Updike, Jonathan Schell, and Calvin Trillin in addition to White, who had a hand in every aspect of the magazine, from writing the famous ‘‘Talk of the Town’’ feature to creating a painting that appeared on the cover. The magazine featured a wide variety of articles, all well-written and well-edited, from satiric commentary to innovative short stories to tough investigative journalism. Edwin Emery, in his The Press and America, calls The New Yorker ‘‘possibly the most distinctive of American magazines’’ and writes that it ‘‘was more than cartoons, whimsy, and curiously plotless fiction; it had its penetrating ‘Profiles,’ its ‘Reporter at Large,’ and other incisive commentaries on public affairs.’’

The New Yorker of the late 1950s stood at the head of a distinguished class of American magazines. Harper’s was more than one hundred years old, having begun as a literary journal and transformed itself into a public affairs magazine. The Saturday Evening Post, the magazine that was edited for the ‘‘old lady in Dubuque’’ and the rest of the heartland, had about six million subscribers nationwide who eagerly read its fiction, biographies, and current events reportage. Esquire was a literary magazine that published Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, and many other stars in addition to new voices. Reader’s Digest had been around since the 1920s, but began to reflect the conservative ideas and inspirational philosophies of its founder, DeWitt Wallace. It was the circulation king; between 1946 and 1970, its circulation doubled to nearly eighteen million in the United States plus ten million in sixty countries around the world. Political magazines also were having a heyday, with National Review in which William F. Buckley Jr. espoused the views of the right and the Nation and the New Republic which espoused views of the left.

Literary Style

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Authoritative Tone
Strunk wrote his original manuscript in the authoritative tone of the professor speaking from the lectern, and White, in his additions, followed Strunk’s lead. While the authors acknowledge that some of their views are not universally held, they...

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go on to present those views as representing the highest standards of written English. Virtually all of the book’s rules and principles, and also much of the text that supports them, are presented in imperative sentences: ‘‘Put statements in positive form’’; ‘‘express coordinate ideas in similar form’’ (the principle of parallel construction); ‘‘revise and rewrite.’’ Following their own advice about not weakening sentences with vague qualifiers, Strunk and White never write ‘‘try to . . .’’ or ‘‘it is a good idea to . . .’’ or ‘‘if possible . . .’’ Their presentation can be summed up as follows: These are the rules. Good writers follow them. A reader ofThe Elements of Style is likely to conclude that Professor Strunk was not in the habit of asking his students, ‘‘Are there any questions?’’ His rules of written English are clear and neat and not open to discussion.

This authoritarian tone is made much more palatable by the abundant humor in the book. Without a heavy dose of humor, the authors would seem like cruel dictators. Their great sense of fun enlivens the text. They have a talent for making readers laugh at their own crimes against the language. Readers who know they are guilty of having written ‘‘nauseous’’ when they should have written ‘‘nauseated’’ feel corrected but not scolded when they read:

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

Again, White’s introduction credits Strunk’s own sense of humor for the merry-prankster attitude that pervades the book. White reports that Strunk found the term ‘‘student body’’ gruesome and determined to do away with it; the professor visited the office of the Alumni News to suggest that the publication use ‘‘studentry’’ (which Strunk himself coined, after ‘‘citizenry’’) instead of ‘‘student body.’’ ‘‘I am told,’’ White writes, ‘‘that the News editor was so charmed by the visit, if not by the word, that he ordered the student body buried, never to rise again.’’ White goes on to register his opinion that ‘‘studentry’’ is ‘‘not much of an improvement, but it does sound less cadaverous.’’ Countless readers have been as charmed by the humor of Strunk and his coauthor as that collegiate editor was.

Reference books that become classics are often comprehensive, providing answers to every imaginable question on the topic it covers. But The Elements of Style is far from comprehensive. Though it is now a bigger book than the book Strunk wrote in the early 1900s, ‘‘bigger’’ is strictly relative, and the current edition has not outgrown Strunk’s nickname for his version, ‘‘the little book.’’ The New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage, at 838 pages, is comprehensive. The Elements of Style, at fewer than one hundred, is idiosyncratic. It became and remains a classic because it covers issues that trip up many writers and, even more so, because it speaks to those issues in a quirky but forceful way.

Compare and Contrast

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1950s:The New Yorker is a humorous, cosmopolitan magazine that publishes the work of literary stars, including humorists James Thurber and Ogden Nash and critic Dorothy Parker, known for her sharp wit. The magazine also is famous for its cartoons, contributed by Charles Addams and other well-known artists.

Today:The New Yorker still publishes the work of highly respected writers (Calvin Trillin and John McPhee, for example) and cartoonists (Roz Chast and many others).

1950s: Magazines are printed on paper, and consumers buy them at newstands or have them delivered by mail. Several months pass between the time an issue is written and the time it is delivered to readers.

Today: Most magazines that publish paper editions also publish electronic editions on the Internet. Electronic publishing technology means that online editions can be updated constantly, and an article may be written, edited, and read by consumers all in the course of a single day. In addition to traditional magazines, there are thousands of e-zines, magazines that publish only electronic editions. Their quality varies widely, from highly professional journals to newsletters produced by hobbyists.

1950s: The written word is the primary medium for the communication of news and information and is also an important entertainment medium. While television offers a limited number of news programs, most people depend on newspapers for in-depth and local news. While Americans love movies, they also look to books and magazines for humor and other forms of entertainment.

Today: Visual media have overtaken text media in the realms of both news and entertainment. Hundreds of television channels exist, and some provide news coverage twenty-four hours a day. In addition, online news sources provide constantly updated news. Consumers can watch movies and other entertainment at home any time via videocassettes, DVDs, and cable and satellite movie channels, and, increasingly, on the Internet. All in all, Americans read less and watch more than they did in the past.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Baum, P. F., Review of The Elements of Style, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, 1960, reprint, August 22, 1982, p. 4.

Churchill, Winston, My Early Life: A Roving Commission, Scribner’s, 1930, p. 218.

Emery, Edwin, The Press and America, 3d ed., Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972, pp. 569–76.

Fried, Debra, ‘‘Bewhiskered Examples in The Elements of Style,’’ in Western Humanities Review, Vol. 45, No. 4, Winter 1991, pp. 304–11.

Hacker, Diane, A Writer’s Reference, 5th ed., St. Martin’s, 2002.

Hall, Donald, The Modern Stylists, Collier-Macmillan, 1968, p. 5.

Hoffman, Gary, and Glynis Hoffman, Adiós, Strunk and White: A Handbook for the New Academic Essay, 2d ed., Verve Press, 1999.

Nabokov, Vladimir, Lolita, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1955, p. 11.

Pater, Walter, in Contemporary Review, February 1895, as quoted in Trimble, John, Writing with Style, Prentice Hall, 2000, p. 180.

Sampson, Edward C., ‘‘Chapter Nine: The Elements of Style,’’ in E. B. White, Twayne’s United States Authors Series, 1974.

Scary, Elaine, On Beauty and Being Just, Princeton University Press, 1999, pp. 23–25.

Strunk, William, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 3d ed., Macmillan, 1979, p. 21.

White, E. B., The Points of My Compass, HarperCollins, 1979.

Further Reading
Elledge, Scott, E. B. White: A Biography, Norton, 1984. This comprehensive biography by a Cornell University English professor covers White’s personal and professional life.

Gill, Brendan, Here at ‘‘The New Yorker,’’ Random House, 1975. Brendan Gill was a staff writer at The New Yorker for more than forty years. His book provides an inside glimpse of life at the magazine and the famous writers and editors who worked there, including White.

McQuade, Donald, and Robert Atwan, eds., Popular Writing in America: The Interaction of Style and Audience, 5th ed., Oxford University Press, 1995. This lengthy anthology explores style in every form of writing from advertising and newspapers to classic books. In addition to written examples, it includes numerous essays by authors as diverse as White, Frederick Douglass, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Annie Dillard.

Olmstead, Robert, Elements of the Writing Craft, Story Press, 1997. Novelist and short story writer Robert Olmstead provides more than 150 focused writing lessons, each beginning with a sample from an accomplished writer that illustrates the technique. Olmstead then analyzes the sample and suggests exercises aspiring writers can do in order to practice the technique.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide