Themes

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Brevity
One principle that runs throughout The Elements of Style is that of brevity. To Strunk and White, good writing expresses thoughts economically. One of their ‘‘principles of composition’’ is to ‘‘omit needless words.’’ The next rule advises to ‘‘avoid a succession of loose sentences.’’ Later in the book, they instruct: ‘‘Do not explain too much.’’ By way of examples, they shorten ‘‘in a hasty manner’’ to ‘‘hastily,’’ ‘‘he is a man who’’ to ‘‘he,’’ and so on. They make a special example of ‘‘the fact that,’’ stating flatly, ‘‘It should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.’’

This theme of the book matched Strunk’s personality and his teaching emphasis, as White remembers in his introduction to The Elements of Style:

‘‘Omit needless words!’’ cries the author on page 23, and into that imperative Will Strunk really put his heart and soul. In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself—a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had out-distanced the clock.

Strunk’s original version of The Elements of Style, White writes, was ‘‘his attempt to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin.’’ Strunk said it all in forty-three pages, and White reports that it was with wicked delight that the professor always referred to his work as ‘‘the little book.’’

Clarity
Along with urging writers to be brief, the authors admonish them to be clear. In his chapter on style, White makes his case for clarity in a way that is so serious it is almost shocking:

Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a wellintentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram.

Having made his point, White goes on to acknowledge that there are humorous possibilities, too, in unclear writing. To prove it, he reports that the staid New York Times once informed its readers that Nelson Rockefeller was ‘‘chairman of the Museum of Modern Art, which he entered in a fireman’s raincoat during a recent fire, and founded the Museum of Primitive Art.’’ White follows this with words that are slung together in his own distinctive style and that beg to be quoted. Referring to the quotation from the Times, he writes:

This we all love. But think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity; think of that side, and be clear! When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.

Clarity and its cousins, accuracy and precision, are the subtexts of rules presented throughout the book. ‘‘Use definite, specific, concrete language,’’ the authors write. ‘‘Keep related words together.’’ (The example given of a sentence that breaks this rule is, ‘‘New York’s first commercial humansperm bank opened Friday with semen samples from eighteen men frozen in a stainless steel tank.’’) The chapter on commonly misused words serves the cause of clarity by reminding writers not to use ‘‘disinterested’’ when they mean ‘‘uninterested’’ or ‘‘enormity’’ when they mean ‘‘enormousness,’’ pointing out that the word pairs are not synonymous.

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