I am frequently asked what a writer needs in the way of reference works. There are a lot of obvious answers, a dictionary, a thesaurus, a desk encyclopedia, nowadays all of which are available via Mr. Google. But if I were stranded on a desert island–with my laptop, or at the very least pen and paper–the one essential guide I would have to have with me would be Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

The original edition was written as a textbook by English professor Will Strunk, Jr. It was revived, added to and published by one of his students, E.B. White, and has yet to go out of print. White, you will remember, is also the author of Charlotte’s Web, as well as The Letters of E.B. White, the wisest and wittiest collection of not-so-private correspondence ever bound between two covers. One example:

I can only assume that your editorial writer tripped over the First Amendment and thought it was the office cat.

But back to The Elements of Style. The book is easily navigated, six chapters including one on style and another on spelling, with a glossary and an index in back. I reread The Elements of Style every two or three years, cover to cover, just to remind myself what’s what in my world. I confess, I’m always looking up “lay” and “lie” [page 77, “Do not misuse lay for lie. The hen, or the play, lays an egg; the llama lies down.”], an eternal bone of contention between Everywriter and The Copyeditor.

Part of the delight of this book [Grammar? Delightful? Am I kidding you? No.] lies [lays?] in its [no apostrophe] examples, as here:

“being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap” demonstrating the incorrect usage of participial phrase and subject.

I don’t know about you, but I always buy houses when I’m in a dilapidated condition myself.

Chapter 4, “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused,” is my first stop when I stub my toe on Something Everyone Says, so it has to be right. Right? Wrong. Strunk and White are united in the less is more view of style. Don’t pad, don’t label, don’t invent verbs by adding -ize to a noun, however tempting it may be. That way lies [lays?] abomination.

I’ve worn out three or four paperback editions of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style since being introduced to it by Mr. Winklebleck, my high school freshman English teacher. I broke down and bought Maira Kalman’s illustrated edition when it came out in hardcover in 2005. And then there’s the 50th Anniversary Edition, gilt lettered and black leather bound, which might be the one thing I’d like to be buried with. [with which I’d like to be buried?]

Chatter Writing

Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. My Strunk & White has guided me through +/- 60 or 70 years of journalism and lives permanently in the 1st spot on my reference shelf adjacent to my desk. “Don’t leave home without it!”

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