The Ten Month Beat

An account of the ten months at the graduate school of journalism for the class of 2006.


elements of bad style

from my hometown paper, the LATimes:

In praise of a mangled masterpiece


November 4, 2005

SOMETIMES A SMALL issue lights a large landscape like a slash of lightning; for a moment we see society with dazzling clarity. A new edition of "The Elements of Style" has just appeared — "Elements" is the classic writers' handbook by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. The new version starkly illuminates our disrespect for national treasures.

In 1957, White was asked to revise Strunk's decades-old text. White (who had been Strunk's student at Cornell) agreed, and he published two further revisions in 1972 and '79. The result was not merely brilliant, it was beloved: It's never been out of print. White died in 1985. Then the trouble started. A post-mortem revision appeared in 1999; it has just been republished with pictures by Maira Kalman. To mark the new release, a PR volcano erupted. The New York Public Library even staged a musical "Elements." The new version violates what Strunk and White is all about.

The revision was done anonymously. The only new name on the title page is now the illustrator's. And the reviser has been unfaithful to Strunk and White. For starters, he changed White's signed introduction, a short memoir about Strunk — like reworking a Picasso but leaving the signature. He changed lots of other things too.

According to White, Strunk "felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, a man floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain the swamp quickly and get his man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope." The revised version tells us that Strunk felt, on the contrary, "that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get the reader up on dry ground, or at least to throw a rope."

"At least to throw a rope?" Throw it where? To whom? The phrase is vague bordering on meaningless. And White's "get his man up on dry ground" hints at the author's personal responsibility to his reader. Of course these are details. But White cared passionately about the details that make for good writing.

The reviser clearly disapproves of the indefinite masculine — "he," "man" and so on — to mean anyone. Fine. Except that White believed the exact opposite, and said so in a rule he added to "Elements": "He has lost all suggestion of maleness in these circumstances." This very issue caused a sad disagreement toward the end of White's long relationship with the New Yorker, a magazine he more than any other author raised to dizzying literary heights. In 1971, White submitted a piece attacking "gender neutral" writing — and the New Yorker rejected it. Dog rejects bone.

The latest "Elements" includes clunkers like this: "When repeating a statement to emphasize it, the writer may need to vary its form. Otherwise, the writer should follow the principle of parallel construction." Here's the way it was actually written: "When repeating a statement to emphasize it, the writer may need to vary its form. But apart from this he should follow the principle of parallel construction."

New words enter the language all the time, as Strunk and White tell us: "Youth invariably speaks to youth in a tongue of his own devising." A memorable phrase, taut as a piano string: "youth speaks to youth." Here is the new, "improved" version: "Youth invariably speaks to other youths in a tongue of their own devising." Who would have thought these small changes could do so much damage, like a monkey wrench through a plate-glass window?

Adding insult to injury, the illustrated edition includes a page of credits, dedications, copyright notices and so forth — each printed separately and placed on the page at strange angles or upside down. Clever. The word "hello" sprawls across the inside front cover in fancy italics; "thank you," "and," "goodbye" appear on three pages at the end.

"Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute," say Strunk and White.

When the 1999 version resurfaced in fancy dress, the New York literary world should have thrown a fit. Instead, it threw a party. But what gives anyone the right to tamper with a masterpiece? American authors had a good year in 1957. Would anyone have the nerve to publish a revised version of a story by Malamud, Shaw, Updike, Nabokov? Or an essay by Mailer, Podhoretz or White himself? True, the language changes. But why couldn't the reviser's bright ideas have appeared as notes surrounding the unchanged original?

What should we make of literati who claim to treasure "Elements" but don't mind seeing it brutally mangled? And here's the larger problem: A society that has no respect for its literary treasures probably — deep down — has no respect for itself.


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