Sunday, August 10, 2014

The case for brevity

The Great War began in Europe 100 years ago this month. America did not enter World War I until April 1917. At its close, E.B. White was a student at Cornell University. He took an English course in 1919 with William Strunk, Jr. A little book penned by the professor named The Elements of Style was the course text.

White graduated from Cornell, proceeded to forget about Strunk's little book until Macmillan commissioned him to revise it in 1957. He added CHAPTER V - AN APPROACH TO STYLE with such useful reminders as "Write with nouns and verbs."

White revised his revision in 1972, then again in 1979, for which he wrote an introduction introducing William Strunk. The professor sarcastically coined the phrase 'little book' as it was privately published by himself. In its original form, The Elements of Style was a 43-page summation of the "case for cleanliness, accuracy and brevity" in composition.

White warns William Strunk's rules and principles are a series of commands. "Omit needless words" is imperative. White strived for 60 years to omit needless words after the professor's oration on brevity:
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. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.  

"There you have a short, valuable essay on the nature and beauty of brevity - 
59 words that could change the world," said E. B. White. 

"Subject-Verb-Object" is my reply.


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