Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Happy Birthday, William Strunk

Anyone with any pretensions to being a writer must own and memorize this little book. I make it a point to re-read it once or twice a year, and I continue to learn things. You don't want to be without this book.

It's the birthday of grammarian and professor William Strunk, Jr., born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1869). He's best known for his work The Elements of Style, which he wrote in 1918, while he was an English professor at Cornell University, in order "to lighten the task of instructor and student by concentrating attention ... on a few essentials, the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated." The original edition of 1918, printed privately, was only 43 pages long.

It became a classic when E. B. White, who was once a student of his, published a revised 1959 edition, about a decade after Strunk's death. White updated in 1972, this time replacing some of Strunk's outdated examples with modern ones; White published yet another edition in 1979. Strunk championed active voice over passive voice, staying with one verb tense, and precise, concrete language. In his book, he gave examples of poor use of language in one column, and then in a parallel column gave examples of correct, fluid, and lucid style.

William Strunk said, "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts."

And, "It is worse to be irresolute than to be wrong."

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