Academic journal article Pennsylvania Literary Journal

The Elements of Bile

Academic journal article Pennsylvania Literary Journal

The Elements of Bile

Article excerpt

"Forget grammar and think about potatoes."

-Gertrude Stein

In 1918, Cornell professor, William Strunk, Jr., self-published The Elements of Style. In the introduction, his student, E.B. White, boasted that the 70-page primer fit "the rules and principles on the head of a pin," concisely cataloging stylistic high crimes and grammatical misdemeanors. The Stuart Little author went on to reveal the purpose of what he called his teacher's Parvus Opum, or "Little Book": to rescue the writer "floundering in the swamp... delivering his man up on dry ground... or at least throw him a rope."

Bestselling novelist, Stephen King, concluded in the introduction to his 2000 title, On Writing, that "The Little Book" contained, "little or no detectable bullshit," and that his own title was also short "because most books about writing are filled with bullshit."

Many agreed. The Elements of Style became a pioneering classic, apparently delivering drowning scriveners to dry ground. With the serial adjectives he spurned, White concluded, "Longer, lower textbooks are in use nowadays, I daresay - books with upswept tail fins and automatic verbs." But - indulging himself in not one, but two, adverbs - he insisted that none "come to the point as quickly and illuminate it as amusingly."

Countless other lines have been tossed into the high seas of literature since the Elements. Today's writer, now with more ropes on him than Gulliver under the Lilliputians, must decide which are lifesavers and which are nooses.

University of Edinburgh English chair, Geoffrey K. Pullum1, asserts that the latter outnumber the former in Strunk and White's style and usage primer. "Both authors were grammatical incompetents," he writes. "The book's contempt for its own grammatical dictates seems almost willful, as if the authors were flaunting the fact that the rules don't apply to them."

Even so, most would agree with King that the Little Book's stylistic rules, if not the usage rules, are bulletproof and timeless.

But does Shakespeare, Professor Strunk's exemplar, flaunt the fact that the professor's law didn't apply to him either?

Don't overstate, overexplain, or pontificate.

Omit needless words: be clear and concise.

Don't use a twenty dollar word when a ten center will do.

Don't affect a breezy manner.

Some might say that, in their bloviations, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and Falstaff not only bend these commandments, but bury them.

Was the arbiter of style and his supporters - Gardner, Zinsser, etc.blinded by the Emperor's New Clothes? Heretics argue that Shakespeare turned the King's English into Elizabethan ebonies. For every page of a published play, half is devoted to explanatory footnotes. Did the Bard commit Strunk and White's own "most unpardonable sins": "showing off," "using mannerisms, tricks, adornments"?

Shakespeare's subjects insist he created the deepest, most dramatic, eloquent characters in history. His detractors call them breastbeaters and chicken-littles. Stylistically, he tops Proust, Joyce, and others as a verbal dandy.

Is Shakespeare's style exemplary? Or, is it much ado about nothing?

The latter, charged Voltaire. He called Hamlet, "a vulgar and barbarous drama which would not be tolerated by the vilest populace of France or Italy."

Grading the Bard's composition, Samuel Johnson said he had to red pencil every "six consecutive lines." Dickens found his stories "so intolerably dull that it nauseated me." Tolstoy, who rarely criticized anybody, called the tragedies and comedies "rude, vulgar, and senseless." And George Bernard Shaw threatened to "dig him up and throw stones at him" for "his monstrous rhetorical fustian, and unbearable platitudes."

"Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn."

-Gore Vidal

The premise of Strunk's Little Book boils down to this: "A careful and honest writer does not have to worry about style. …

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