Style Mavens

ID_NC_MEIS_ELEME_AP_001 For his birthday (today), Morgan Meis gives us this, in The Smart Set:

Omit needless words!

That's what you'd have if you reduced the 105 pages of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White's The Elements of Style — which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year — to three words. The idea is that fewer words leads to clarity. Clearness and brevity go together, as do confusion and prolixity. You are also advised to avoid pretentious words like “prolixity” (though I'm not sure a more concise word exists in this instance). But when in doubt, omit, simplify, pare.

The fun of The Elements of Style is in Strunk's outrageous confidence. Bill was enjoying himself. He wrote the book as a manual for his English students at Cornell University. E.B White, Strunk's student at Cornell, loved the tone, the advice, and the man. How could he not? In the “Principles of Composition” section, the 15th principle is “put statements in positive form.” Strunk tells us to “avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language.” Here's his example of what to avoid:

The Taming of the Shrew is rather weak in spots. Shakespeare does not portray Katherine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare's works.

Here is how he fixes it:

The women in The Taming of the Shrew are unattractive. Katherine is disagreeable. Bianca insignificant.

I'm actually rather fond of Kate, especially before she gets tamed, but you have to love the example. The Elements of Style abounds in such wonders.