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When constructing a piece of writing, a student may sometimes find herself struggling to remember grammar rules or style principles. A handy reference guide would help her out immensely. William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s book, The Elements of Style, and Joseph Williams’ book, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, assist writers improve their work in various ways. Strunk and Whites’ book took a simple approach, while Williams went more in-depth, with elaborate explanations and varying choices for each writing style.
Strunk and White’s approach was directed towards basic principles of composition, elementary rules and a general approach to style. Each principle was stately plainly, but without much explanation. Rules were meant to be strictly followed, and not questioned. They weren’t hard to follow, but some did seem unhelpful. An example is Strunk and Whites’ rule about not using the word “nature”; they believe that “the reader cannot tell whether the poems have to do with natural scenery, rural life, the sunset, the untracked wilderness, or the habits of squirrels” (53). This rule seems strange to me. Nature doesn’t need to be that structured. But, possibly the odd aspects of this book are connected to the date it was written.
Strunk and White’s book was first published in 1935, and revised over the years. But, somehow the book hasn’t grasped the idea of change. The book seems to still be stuck in 1935; for instance, some of the examples refer to Moses and Isis. As we discussed in class, this seems fairly outdated. I’m ashamed to say I’m even unaware of who Isis is. Strunk and White also warn against using the phrase “the foreseeable future”, stating it is “a cliché, and a fuzzy one…How much of the future is foreseeable?...By whom is it foreseeable?” (Strunk and White 59). I don’t quite understand this rule; it seems old-fashioned to advise against referring to the future. It seems useless and unnecessary to state.
Other principles in Strunk and Whites’ book were useless, as well. One rule describes the use of the word “clever”. Strunk and White claim that “the word means one thing when applied to people, another when applied to horses. A clever horse is a good-natured one, not an ingenious one” (Strunk and White 43). I may seem picky, but this just seems ridiculous. How often is a person going to write about a clever horse?
Not only were many principles in Strunk and Whites’ book useless, but many were also vague and unclear.
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Even though I didn’t quite relate to Strunk and Whites’ book, some students did appreciate the simplicity of it. Some students referred to this book as a handy reference guide. I agree, but not for students at college level. The rules in this book are far too basic and vague for experienced writers.
Williams, in a way, picked up where Strunk and White left off. Instead of simply stating a rule, Williams explained it in full detail and described how to adapt it to one’s writing. Just by browsing through the chapter titles, (clarity, cohesion, coherence, concision) one can tell how thorough the book is. Williams states why rules exist and why they are important. He says that “a good ear will serve you better than a flat rule” (Williams 127). He wants the reader to be able to critique their own writing in a constructive manner.
I particularly found the section on concision to be the most helpful for me. I often find myself overstating ideas and muddling my writing with extra words. I suffer from redundancy; probably because I have a fear of not including enough information for assignments. The strict rules of high school are still with me; I still hit the “recount words” button frequently- just to check my length. But, I feel that strictness is hindering my progress as a writer. I’m trying to see the bigger picture of my writing; by focusing on Williams rules, I’m realizing what steps I can take to break myself out of the cycle of redundancy.
Williams also touched upon some helpful ideas about managing the beginning and ends of sentences for emphasis. “If you begin a sentence well, the end will almost take care of itself” (Williams 67). Williams puts importance on the climactic rhythm of a sentence. He feels that the less important information should be located at the beginning of a sentence, while the most important information should be at the end. Both parts of the sentence are crucial for making it clear and coherent. Furthermore, Williams gave valuable advice on how to relay complex information, perhaps that is entirely unfamiliar to the reader. He recommends designing the sentence where the unfamiliar term (the most important information) is at the end of the sentence, for better understanding.
Williams didn’t just believe in stating plain rules, he believed in originality. He felt that the simplicity of plain prose seemed flat and dry. He explained that “sometimes a touch of class, a flash of elegance, can mark the difference between forgettable Spartan prose and an idea so elegantly expressed that it fixes itself in the mind of your reader” (Williams 153). Writing takes imagination and skill, not just the ability to write grammatically correct.
A writer wants to get his message across; this is established the easiest when the writing is developed in a clear manner with an eloquent style. The writer desires to make that message last more than two seconds after it is read. The Elements of Style, in my opinion, is a great learning tool for writers at a high school, or lower, level. For style rules at a more experiences level, Style: Toward and Clarity and Grace, is a great choice. Not only will the reader get current principles laid out in plain English, but he/she will also know why these principles are important. These aspects ensure that the reader will be able to learn these new principles and adapt them to their writing.
Strunk Jr., William, and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. New York: Longman,
Williams, Joseph. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 1990.