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  • The Elements of Style turns 50. If you're celebrating, make sure to use the active voice

    April, 2009, is the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Elements of Style, a book first written and published privately in 1918 by William Strunk for his composition students at Cornell, but revised and reintroduced to the world by E. B. White half a century ago.

    White took English 8 from Strunk in 1919. He then forgot about his freshman composition course, and its textbook, until 1957, when a friend sent him a copy of The Elements of Style that he had stolen from the Cornell library. White wrote about the purloined book in the New Yorker (“Letter from the East,” July 27, 1957, pp. 35-36; 41- 45), but he apparently didn’t return it to Cornell. Instead, he revised it (Strunk had died in 1946), added an introductory essay, and republished The Elements of Style in 1959. It immediately became a best-seller, and its four editions have sold more than ten million copies.

    Strunk’s “little book” took a reductive approach to writing, with 8 rules of usage, 10 principles of composition, and a list of frequently misused words. According to White, Strunk’s goal was to write the “rules and principles [of English] on the head of a pin” (the first Elements of Style actually ran 43 pages, too big for a pinhead, but short for a work of its kind).

    No one can really shrink the rules for writers down to an easily-swallowed pill, a 43-page essay, or even a long, rambling tome, and hope to be successful, because writing doesn’t respond well to formulas, and no set of rules can anticipate the situations writers have to deal with daily. But true to the spirit of brevity that writing teachers often extol, Strunk’s Rule 13 states, “Omit needless words,” and that’s pretty much what he did: Strunk wrote only one other book, a 73-page study of English meter.

    Strunk's Rule 13 

    Rule 13 from the 1918 edition of The Elements of Style

    Ignoring Rule 13, White described his eccentric teacher, “his eyes blinking incessantly behind steel-rimmed spectacles as though he had just emerged into strong light, his lips nibbling each other like nervous horses, his smile shuttling to and fro in a carefully edged mustache.”

    Picture of William Strunk 

    A photograph of William Strunk, emerging into a strong light, squinting at the studentry. White’s caricature of his teacher is kinder than how most students describe eccentric teachers.

    But unlike his pupil, Strunk usually followed his own rules, and since he made each of his words tell, White remembers that to fill each hour Strunk said every sentence three times:

    White describes Strunk repeating everything three times 

    Strunk’s rules, like those of other language law-givers, assume that writers use too many words to say too little. Like Henry Fowler and George Orwell, Strunk calls for language that is direct, assertive, and active. Rule 12 states, “Make definite assertions,” though the rule may be needlessly long, since assertions suggest a certain amount of definiteness to begin with.

    Rule 10 states simply, “Use the active voice.” The book says it once, though Strunk, turning rule into incantation, probably said it three times in class:

    Rule 10: Use the active voice 

    Strunk recognized there was a place for the passive, and he even used the passive to talk about it:

    Strunk on the passive 

    Though Henry Fowler doesn’t favor one voice over the other in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, George Orwell is even more assertive than Strunk in praising the active voice. In “Politics and the English Language” (1946), Orwell calls the passive one of the “swindles and perversions” of modern writing, though he uses an agentless passive to condemn the construction: “The passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active.”

    Orwell uses passives because rule-givers typically break their own rules. Sometimes Strunk broke rules too, championing the needless word studentry, which he favored over student body. There are two citations for studentry in the OED, but speakers of English invariably prefer students or student body as the general term.

    Strunk knew that good writers strayed from the rules, but like most rule-makers he was convinced that rules had to be mastered before they could be broken, and that even then they could only be broken for good reason. But that’s not how writers work. We don’t memorize a set of rules and then ignore them once we’ve passed the test. Instead, we hack away, sometimes using too many words, sometimes too few. We learn to trust our ear, not our textbook. We use the voice that sounds right, and the idiom, both while we’re learning and later, after we’ve turned pro.

    Even White admits this. In an introduction to a 1977 reprint of his New Yorker essay on Strunk, White reveals his discomfort with the role of rule-giver: "I felt uneasy at posing as an expert on rhetoric, when the truth is I write by ear, always with difficulty and seldom with any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood." That is how we all write.

    Image of White's quotation

    E. B. White is acknowledged to be a pretty good writer. That’s because he didn’t follow the rules that he and his mentor, Will Strunk, laid down in The Elements of Style. It’s fine to read that book, and to celebrate its anniversary. But no rule book or just-add-water instant prose recipe can substitute for the trial and error, the variety and experiment, the exactness and the uncertainty, the occasional success and the many failures, that writers face every day if we’re doing our job right.

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