my recent reads..

The Elements of Style (Illustrated)



I raved about Robert W. Harris' When Good People Write Bad Sentences a few weeks ago. Since then I saw Jeff Atwood's post making the point that great coders bring many of the same skills used in writing to their programming. Jeff cited the Strunk & White classic, The Elements of Style.

So I thought may be it's time to check it out again. I have vague memories of seeing it back at school; I certainly don't remember studying it in any concerted way.

I was unsurprised to discover that the core of the book remains a concise litany of rules of correct English usage. Exactly the kind of un-engaging treatment that I praised When Good People Write Bad Sentences for avoiding.

This part of Elements of Style is remains a great reference guide; you wouldn't really want to just read it like a book. It makes me wonder why we don't have these style guidelines built into our word processor and editing software. Sure, we have spelling and grammar. But as these books prove so well, the correct words in the right order does not alone make for good style.

I did, however, read the illustrated Fourth Edition from 2000. It has two surprises that take it beyond a simple reference book.

First, the quirky "American Modern" illustrations by Maira Kalman are a delight to browse.
His first thought on getting out of bed—if he had any thought at all–was to get back in again.
His first thought on getting out of bed—if he had any thought at all–was to get back in again.

Second, we have the new chapters added by E.B. White such as "An Approach to Style". These provide much more interesting reading, with a humorous vein in the same class as "When Good People Write Bad Sentences".
Another segment of society that has constructed a language of its own is business.

Its portentious nouns and verbs invest ordinary events with high adventure, executives walk among toner cartidges, caparisoned like knights. We should tolerate them-every person of spirit wants to ride a white horse. The only question is whether business vocabulary is helpful to ordinary prose. [...]

A good many of the special words of business seem designed more to express the user's dreams than to express a precise meaning.

DeGarmo and Lister had a name for that in Peopleware: Management by Hyperbole!