Monday, February 15, 2010

The Elements of Style

"Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, non-committal language."—Rule 12 William Strunk, Jr

This is THE BOOK to read if you want to learn how to write. Concise, witty and above all else, competent, this little tome points the way to good writing with short commandments already adhered to by heavyweights like Hemingway, Faulkner and Orwell. Every time I reread Elements, I think of Orwell, master of the active tense and the self proclaimed enemy of turgid prose as seen by his insightful essay, Politics and the English Language
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
To see why this essay matters, consider this....

"In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’.

Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:


‘While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable
concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.’"

Sounds like Obama and Afghanistan doesn't it.

Addendum: Check out Word Perfect, a blurb from Cornell (where Strunk taught) explaining how "The Little Book" came to be.



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