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Strunk and White's 'Elements of Style' as relevant today as it was 50 years ago

The most flattering thing anyone ever said to me — although I didn't realize it at the time — was, "You don't really need this, but it's good to have."

I was in my senior year at Robinson High School in Tampa, and the speaker was my inspiring, no-nonsense journalism teacher, Jack Overstreet.

"This" was an ochre-jacketed little book called The Elements of Style, published 10 years before and at that time still credited to William Strunk Jr., "with revisions, an introduction and a new chapter on writing by E.B. White."

My teacher's canny ploy to build my self-esteem and improve my writing skills all at once worked. I did need the book, of course, and so does everybody else who writes anything.

The Elements of Style, a.k.a. Strunk and White, celebrates its 50th anniversary on Thursday and remains the most direct, elegant, useful guide for writers I've ever read.

It's also the only one ever to inspire an operatic song cycle, performed at the New York Public Library in 2005.

Publisher Pearson Longman is celebrating the book's half-century with a sturdy leather-bound edition, introduced with four pages of blurbs from famous fans ranging from Roy Blount Jr. to Ursula K. Leguin, from Susan Orlean ("Elegant, droll, and perfectly proportioned, and like your favorite aunt, strict but affectionate.") to Jonathan Lethem ("Eschew surplusage! A perfect book.").

Few, if any, other writing guides inspire such devotion, and few last so long.

Although their names have become as permanently joined as Romeo and Juliet or Ben and Jerry, Strunk and White did not write the book together. William Strunk Jr. was a popular professor of English at Cornell University who wrote and self-published a 43-page version of The Elements of Style for his students' use.

One of those students was E.B. White, who graduated from Cornell in 1921 and went on to become a staff writer at the New Yorker and the acclaimed author of Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web.

In 1957, White rediscovered his professor's guide and wrote an admiring essay about it for the New Yorker. That led to a contract with Macmillan to revise and update "the little book," as White called it, with permission from Strunk's family (he died in 1946).

Published in 1959, The Elements of Style was "lean and clean and sound as a dollar, which is what it costs," as White's editor at Macmillan, J.G. Case, wrote to him. Case promised the book would be "showered like rose petals on campuses from coast to coast; in a few months we'll know whether students are going to buy some."

They did. The book was an instant classic and has sold 10 million copies over the decades. White updated and revised it twice in the 1970s, and a fourth edition in 2000 added a foreword by White's stepson, writer Roger Angell.

Part of Elements' appeal is its concision. Other handbooks for writers stack up the rules and regulations. The little book boils it all down to seven rules of usage, 11 principles of composition, an invaluable list of frequently misused words and expressions, and "An Approach to Style," a 19-page chapter with more solid advice than half the writing courses out there.

Although a few of Elements' rules have become outdated because of shifts in the language (alas, its brave stands on "hopefully" and "like" have fallen to careless usage), almost all of it is still useful, whether you're a published author or a middle-schooler writing a term paper.

I wish I could say I followed my teacher's example and handed out copies of Strunk and White to everyone I encountered who might benefit from it. But with a career that has involved first teaching more sections of freshman English than I care to remember and then decades of editing newspaper copy by reporters whose skills are sometimes blunted by the demands of deadline, I'd be broke.

Wait, let me, as Strunk and White advise, be bold and clear: We all get sloppy sometimes.

And most of us write more than ever. Although in its early days the Internet was bemoaned as the death knell of writing and reading, it has become instead a whole new universe of opportunity for written communication.

People who 20 years ago never wrote letters rattle the keyboard on blogs, e-mail and Facebook daily. The little book's insistence on keeping writing tight and clear is the essence of the Tweet, and what blogger couldn't benefit from this advice: "We all have opinions about almost everything, and the temptation to toss them in is great. To air one's views gratuitously, however, is to imply that the demand for them is brisk, which may not be the case, and which, in any event, may not be relevant to the discussion."

If you're already a fan of the little book, you know how essential it is. If not, you might want to celebrate its longevity by treating yourself to a copy. Sure, you don't really need it, but it's good to have.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

'A PERFECT Book'

The Elements of Style: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition

By William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

Pearson Longman, 128 pages, $19.95

Strunk and White's 'Elements of Style' as relevant today as it was 50 years ago 04/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 11, 2009 4:31am]

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