Friday, November 04, 2005

Updating 'The Elements of Style'

Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style," an outdated prescriptivists' dream, is getting a facelift. And a sound check. Someone tell me why.

First, there's "The Elements of Style Illustrated," with art by Maira Kalman (best known for her New Yorker covers). Take that for what it's worth, but first read this Boston Globe review:
''The Elements"'s new clothes can't hide the worsening limp and spackled complexion that plague this aging zombie of a book.

It was never a seamless creation, to be sure; the 1959 first edition merely sandwiched Strunk's 1918 handbook for his Cornell students, lightly edited, between White's introduction and his essay on prose style. But at least you knew Strunk was Strunk, vintage 1918, and White was White, circa 1958. Succeeding revisions, instead of blending the disparate parts, have left ''Elements" a hodgepodge, its now-antiquated pet peeves jostling for space with 1970s taboos and 1990s computer advice.

And if the illustrated 'Elements' isn't your style, perhaps a musical version is? Newsweek writes that Kalman worked with friend and composer Nico Muhly, who has written an "operatic song cycle": "The Elements of Style: Nine Songs." It's being performed in New York (where else?).
Although lyrics like "Revise and rewrite" and "Do not use a hyphen between two words that can better be written as one word" suggest the didactic thrust of "Schoolhouse Rock," Muhly's work is more in the minimalist-modernist mold of Philip Glass and Steve Reich but with an absurdist dash of Spike Jones.
You can hear a clip at that link. It's fairly unintelligible.

UPDATE: Just read this gem from Languagehat on Strunk & White:
Ouch. I know I can't talk you Strunk-lovers out of your affection, but can you at least look on the damn book as an affectionate portrait of a crotchety former teacher and not as a guide to English, a task for which it is manifestly unsuited? Let it sit harmlessly on the mantelpiece and glare out at the unruly world with its glassy eyes.


At 1:59 AM, November 05, 2005, Blogger Jim said...

Prescriptivist? Maybe. Outdated? I don't know - in this world of dying literacy, I like to think it's good to know the rules before you break them.

Or maybe I just like to find more ways in which I can nestle snuggly into the category of right while shoving others into the wrong.

At 11:21 PM, November 06, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

A couple of rules come immediately to mind:

"The word people is best not used with words of number, in place of persons. If of "six people" five went away, how many people would be left? Answer: one people."

"Avoid starting a sentence with however when the meaning is "nevertheless." The word usually serves better when not in first position. ... When however comes first, it means "in whatever way" or "to whatever extent."

However, you're right, the book is a good starting point. It's hard to argue with "Omit needless words."


Post a Comment

<< Home