Everyone agrees: writers, students, editors, and anyone concerned with clear communication should read “Strunk and White.” What isn’t always explained is that their book The Elements of Style is now available in a mind-boggling array of editions. Did I want the original 1918 version by just William Strunk, Jr.? Or the first edition that was Strunk and E. B. White together? Or one of the anniversary editions? Or…? What I eventually settled on was The Elements of Style, Updated for Present-Day Use. It contains the original Strunk text with Stanford Pritchard’s annotations.
At just 150 printed pages (though I read the Kindle edition), it was a quick enough read, but I was often bored. I was already familiar with most of its rules and suggestions, so I didn’t learn much. That said, I was that girl who declined to take the Advanced Grammar class in high school because I could have passed the final exam on day one. If you’re not a kindred born editor, you could gain a lot from reading The Elements of Style. It is clear and punchy, with just enough humor sprinkled in to last through the dry sections.
For example, I’ve always been inexplicably vexed by awhile and a while. I’ve visited the Grammar Girl entry more times than I care to admit, but I just might have it down now. Something about the way Pritchard put it resonates with me:
awhile / a while : The first is an adverb, meaning for a while; it modifies a verb. The second is a noun, meaning a (usually short) period of time; it is preceded by a preposition. “Stay awhile,” but “Stay with me for a while.” “Linger awhile,” but “I’ll see you in a while.”
It’s cheeky little gems like this part after the explanation, though, that make the book worth reading:
Although there is some overlap between the usages, the distinction is well worth observing; consistency is inherently pleasing.
Another of my favorite passages is in the “Elementary Principles of Composition” chapter where Strunk advises us to use positive statements rather than negating descriptors:
Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, non-committal language…. He was not very often on time. He usually came late…. Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; he wishes to be told what is.
He further illustrates this point with examples like dishonest instead of not honest, trifling instead of not important, and ignored instead of did not pay any attention to. Imagine how much smoother and cleaner writing would be if we all adhered to this rule! As a bonus, using the positive form can help authors struggling against a maximum word count.
In addition to his added sections on usage and bad examples, Pritchard’s annotations are a welcome contrast to Strunk’s sometimes outdated ideas. “After-thought is nowadays streamlined to afterthought,” he assures us. Though this edition was published in 2012, Pritchard’s version of “Present-Day Use” already seems behind the times in places too. He recommends using boy friend and girl friend (rather than the modern boyfriend and girlfriend) because, “being conservative in matters of language, [he prefers] the old way” (though he recognizes “a rule change…may be inevitable”).
In all, I recommend The Elements of Style, Updated for Present-Day Use for editors and other grammar geeks to be able to say you’ve actually read (a version of) Strunk and for students and anyone else struggling with grammar to read explanations and mnemonics that just might click for you better than the way you were traditionally taught.