The (Upper) Case for Style

It’s revealing of me that when I received my copy of The Elements of Style from Amazon the other day, I all but ignored the other books in the box.  My first copy – the one that got me through college – is probably still in my possession, but it is such a small book that it can easily get lost in the stacks unless it’s kept near at hand.  As can, at least in my case, its contents.

For those not familiar with it, The Elements of Style, in fewer than 100 pages, provides a “…summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.”  While it is primarily a reference book, a rope to reach for when you find yourself caught between a rock and independent clauses, it is much more.  Now more than ever, in this time when our modes of communication all but command us to ignore grammar and style (think texting and 140 characters), The Elements of Style offers a clear path back from the edge.  And I mean clear.  When Strunk says,

“Vigorous writing is concise.  A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”,

he does not qualify the instruction with, LOL.  The rules of usage and principles of composition are presented clearly, in the active, affirmative voice.  This confidence is not arrogance.  It is, as Charles Osgood notes in the Afterword, born of sympathy for the reader.

Grammar and style are to the written word what civility and courtesy are to the verbal exchange.  The case can be made that our norms for communicating are simply adapting to our changing technologies,  but as a middle-aged curmudgeon in training, I still find expressions of good style and form refreshing, and I’ll cling to The Elements of Style for just a few decades more, thank you.

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