Tuesday, January 5, 2010


The approach to style is by way of plainness,
simplicity, orderliness, sincerity."
--EB White

I picked up this fascinating history of one of the worlds most used and under-appreciated books just before the holidays when I saw it on librarything. Mark Garvey, the author of Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, has long been fascinated by an old volume of grammar and style advice assigned to virtually every high school english student in the country at one time. Was it assigned to you? Where is your copy?

I found mine on a bookshelf near my desk quite easily. I read it a long time ago and had forgotten about it. Garvey's history gave me the engrossing back story and the controversies surrounding Element's publication. I read it aloud to my husband on our drive home from a family visit. EB White is easily one of the best writers of the 20th century and this book about his (and Strunk's) small volume of essays and grammar advice brought back memories for us.

The author of this history includes thoughts and ideas from writers who read and re-read Elements of Style in order to understand craft and language. The other treat was a collection of EB White's witty letters sent in response to his critics and admirers. Through letters, we catch a glimpse of Mr. White's elegant self-effacing style.

I pulled out my copy of Strunk and White and marveled over the book for the first time. Grammar and style no longer seem like dull tools but rather beautiful music to accompany any writer on the path to better prose. My 12th grade English teacher Mrs. Rose would be impressed.

April 2009 was the 50th anniversary of the publication of Elements in its current form. Pick up your old copy and peruse it. It doesn't get much more down to the marrow of writing than this slim volume. Incidentally, my 1979 edition is 92 pages including index. Current editions are up to 105 pages and have gotten rid of gendered language with which Mr. White may not have agreed. Strunk and White's Elements of Style has easily sold over 1,000,000 copies making it perhaps the bestselling textbook of all time.

Perhaps this will kick start your writing this year.


Hootie said...

LOL! My English grammar book from high school is on my shelf too! It's not this book, but for whatever reasons I could never part with it.

Even the current high schoolers have their own updated version of a grammar book...they receive it in 7th or 8th grade! Both my kids have their copies in their rooms! :)

It would be kind of fun to see how all these books compare.

Steph said...

Mine is atop my stack of work-related books on my small office bookshelf. I use it a few times each year when I'm unsure about a grammar question. (We also use Microsoft's style guide.)

I think it's cool to know the history of this book! My editor friend at work would love this!