What would Strunk and White think?

Sunday, July 28, 2002

William Strunk's and E.B. White's little book "The Elements of Style" has stood the test of time. It was copyrighted by Strunk in 1918. In 1919 it was required reading at Cornell University. It has gone through several revisions. E.B. White (remember "Charlotte's Web" and "Stuart Little") says that the little book should still be required reading for anyone who deals with English words.

Maybe it is. I called the local book stores and asked if they had copies. Their answers were in the tone of, "Yes, yes. Of course we have." I felt like they were shaking their heads and saying, "What dummy was that?"

Strunk stresses brevity in writing and avoidance of unnecessary words. Example: "The fact is, I'm going to town today." Make it, "I'm going to town today."

I have a cherished copy of the little book. It was part of the textbooks Steve left at home when he found his own home. In reading through it, which I often do, I find that he has underlined certain passages and made marginal notes which indicates he really studied these elements of style.

One statement that seems to capsule the message of the whole book is: "To arouse immediate interest in the reader, make a positive, definite, specific statement and then say, 'This statement is true because of these things ... .' Follow up with as many words as you deem necessary but not boring." Paint a word picture, evoke images and sensations, the authors instruct.

Here are some of my examples: No. 1. There are not many children playing in the park this summer.

In past summers the excited and joyous voices of children playing in the park could be heard all day. Now the clank of the bell on the old black steam engine is silent. There is no crack of a baseball bat, no bounce of a basketball on pavement. Even the bluejays are relatively quiet. There is not enough action going on to disturb them. The silence is eerie, especially when one thinks of the probable cause -- the dear, beautiful children being abducted and killed. Sunshine and butterflies are free for them but they have to get outside to enjoy these freebies.

No. 2. It is dangerous for anyone to run around my house after dark.

In the days before drying machines, those who did their laundry had outside clotheslines to hang the wet clothes on to dry.

I have two twisted wire clotheslines running parallel from the house to a metal support post hidden in a large mock orange bush about 50 feet away.

After the dryers came, not many neighbors took their clotheslines down. Neither did I.

Anyone running or even walking around my house after dark will run smack into the first line. The ratio of speed to where flesh contact is made determines whether the head comes off or only an angry, painful, perhaps bloody welt arises; possibly two angry welts for no sooner than the first welt begins to fade away in a flurry of blue-blazing words and the person begins to move on, smack goes the second parallel line. How much more angry the trespasser would be if he knew I was aware of what was going on. At one end, the lines are attached to a window frame which, when contact is made, reverberates to alert me.

In these days of almost instant suing, should I be concerned if a person with a half-attached head should sue me for having a dangerous situation in my yard? I could counter sue for trespassing, especially after dark and muddying the atmosphere with foul language.

What would Strunk and White think of my examples? No way of knowing since they are both dead. I don't anticipate being asked to contribute to any more revisions, but I do think I painted a good word picture of the trespasser, headless or semi-headless, flailing around to get untangled from the wires and continue his journey to wherever he was going? Did I evoke images, arouse sensations?


Jean Bell Mosley is an author and longtime resident of Cape Girardeau.

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