Saturday, October 15, 2005

Is nothing sacred?

Friday's Wall Street Journal (sorry, print version or web subscription only, so no link) had an article about a new version of the classic writer's guide, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White.

If you haven't come across it, The Elements of Style is a slim, supremely elegant book that embodies its own messages. It's short. It's clear. It never aggrandizes the writers or flim-flams the reader. But apparently someone felt that such an approach was behind the times, so they've gussied it up with bizarre illustrations and changed the wording to make the writing instruction more cheery and inclusive.


The late sportswriter and Boston University journalism professor, Timothy Cohane, had a term for the contemporary approach to teaching writing. He called it NSTO, or "no shit too odiferous." According to Cohane, NSTO started with doting parents who insisted that every creative effort of their children was perfect, and that no revisions or editing should ever come between the beloved offspring's spoutings and the reader. This attitude crept gradually from the home to the schools, where teachers got tired of calls from irate parents complaining that little Johnny and Sally would be stifled if their compositions, no matter how incoherent or sloppy, received any grade below an A. And, in a 1999 revision upon which the 2005 illustrated version is based, a whiff of NSTO insinuated itself into The Elements of Style.

Cohane, like Strunk and White, knew that writing is demanding and good writing is the result of thought, practice, and study. Just read 10 blogs and you'll have no trouble telling the difference between the ones written by talented, experienced, disciplined writers and the ones written by blathering nincompoops -- nincompoops making exactly the same mistakes that Strunk and White show you how to avoid or correct.

The version of Elements of Style that you want is the final revision by White (1979), and the good news is that it's still widely available. I recommend picking it up at your local used bookstore. The versions you want to skip are the 1999 revision and the 2005 illustrated version of that revision. "The 1979 Elements will be studied long after the post-White versions have been filed under 'mortifying mistakes' and forgotten," reviewer David Gelernter predicts in the Journal.

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