Omit Needless Words
March 21, 2009 5:17 PM   Subscribe

In 1919 while at Cornell University future children's author, essayist and New Yorker magazine editor Elwyn Brooks (E.B.) White took heed of the advice of his English professor, William Strunk, Jr., to "omit needless words" in his writing. Strunk advised such -- and more -- to his students in a self-published compositional guide known on campus as "the Little Book." In 1935 his pamphlet was revised and published under the title The Elements and Practice of Composition. In 1957, 11 years after Strunk's death, White wrote a nostalgic article about his professor and his grammar and style guide for the New Yorker. Persuaded two years later by Macmillan editor Jack Case to revise and expand Strunk's manual, White co-authored the book The Elements of Style (New York Times review, June 9, 1959] often referred to as Strunk and White. Since its publication the book has sold more than 10 million copies. The literary world is now celebrating the book's golden anniversary.

Let us not forget the recent musical nor the The Elements of Style Illustrated by Maira Kalman.
posted by ericb (89 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ah, if only more people would read it. The internet would be much more legible.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:21 PM on March 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


I have the nice hardbound illustrated version. I love it so.
posted by sugarfish at 5:23 PM on March 21, 2009


My cousin gave me a old and busted copy when I turned whatever age children are supposed to start writing essays. I should figure out where I put it again.
posted by chunking express at 5:23 PM on March 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Christ, asshole.
posted by hal9k at 5:28 PM on March 21, 2009 [8 favorites]


Ah, if only more people would read it. The internet would be much more legible.

4 sur i no wat u meen.
posted by inigo2 at 5:34 PM on March 21, 2009


The lawnmower that is broken is in the garage. (Describes the object)
The lawnmower, which is broken, is in the garage. (Adds a fact about the object in question)

I won't and don't forget.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 5:37 PM on March 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


Eschew surplusage.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:37 PM on March 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Yes, it's a fine book that changed our world. But it's all rules and more of a reference book than a good read. Patricia O'Connor's Woe is I, for example, is more fun than a pig at a county fair.
posted by about_time at 5:38 PM on March 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Some book.
posted by DU at 5:39 PM on March 21, 2009 [11 favorites]


Elements of style, illustrated and sung. 1 and 2
posted by lalochezia at 5:41 PM on March 21, 2009


Some book.

I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE.
posted by jquinby at 5:46 PM on March 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have nothing against correct grammar; indeed, I rather enjoy it. In the interest of generating discussion, though, I submit these two articles by Jan Freeman (courtesy of MeFi's own languagehat):

Frankenstrunk
Return of the Living Dead
posted by sappidus at 5:55 PM on March 21, 2009 [5 favorites]


I don't like this book. I found this review of a recent edition linked in Languagehat's blog some time ago, and I think most of the criticisms are right-on. It suffers from all of the disadvantages of stuffy prescriptivism, and its brevity prevents any meaningful discussion of complex issues of usage.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:55 PM on March 21, 2009


And to be explicit: by the "disadvantages of stuffy prescriptivism", I mean primarily that it's arbitrary and dated.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:57 PM on March 21, 2009


Linguist Geoffrey Pullum of Language Log fame also hates the shit out of Strunk & White.
posted by danb at 5:57 PM on March 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Linguist Geoffrey Pullum of Language Log fame also hates the shit out of Strunk & White.

I saw Geoff Pullum speak at MIT once (at the bookstore, the Coop; I think he was doing a sabbatical year at Harvard that year) when the Language Log book came out. I don't remember too much about the presentation except that at one point he rather dramatically took a stack of copies of The Elements of Style and dropped them into a wastebasket near the podium. As someone who still encounters people treating the book as gospel, it was satisfying to see, even though it was a bit on the dramatic side.

For what it's worth, I think it has some value and the core of the advice is not always bad, but whenever you're looking at "rules of writing," you create a situation in which a certain segment of people will insist on slavishly adhering to them even when they don't fit the context, and that's frustrating. The idea of "omit needless words" isn't terrible, but like the Frankenstrunk review and many others have pointed out, if you interpret it literally takes a sledgehammer to the various degrees of semantic subtlety that the English language's seemingly redundant variety of synonyms and syntactic configurations allow us, and that actually hurts your writing. Learn from writers better than you are, but learn to use your own judgment, too. Sometimes that structure that has a few more "needless" words embedded in it carries with it a semantic and pragmatic shade that's lost with the simpler structure, even if they're equivalent in terms of the factual information that they convey.
posted by Kosh at 6:22 PM on March 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


I can recommend the useful, yet parody-esque 'Spunk And Bite' as a modern addendum to the original. S&B promotes neoligism and unique superlatives among its divers (yes, without the e) recommendations.

I'd post a link, but am hamstrung by my iPhone.
posted by pivotal at 6:22 PM on March 21, 2009


In order to write freely and naturally without regard for the rules, it is first necessary to learn the rules you are disregarding.
posted by DU at 6:29 PM on March 21, 2009 [6 favorites]


In order to write freely and naturally without regard for the rules, it is first necessary to learn the rules you are disregarding.

Unless the rules in question never actually existed in the first place.
posted by decagon at 6:34 PM on March 21, 2009 [5 favorites]


Yeah, a fair appraisal of this book is not possible without the various Language Log commentaries. I just couldn't take it seriously after that.
posted by chinston at 6:51 PM on March 21, 2009


Unless the rules in question never actually existed in the first place.

In which case, they weren't necessary to learn.
posted by maxwelton at 6:52 PM on March 21, 2009



Unless the rules in question never actually existed in the first place.

In which case, they weren't necessary to learn.


That's what the grammernati want you to think
posted by lalochezia at 7:03 PM on March 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


See, S&W purists bug the shit out of me too, but it's just like any other good book. You've gotta read it, and then you've gotta figure out for yourself which parts of it are garbage.

If all you do is read books and agree with them, you're not learning nearly as much as you could be.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:06 PM on March 21, 2009 [6 favorites]


I was delighted as a college freshmen to discover a sentence in the book that broke the rule that it stated. To paraphrase, "Subject and verb, as a general rule, should not be separated by a subordinate clause or phrase." To this day, I'm not sure if that was deliberate humor or not.
posted by timing at 7:10 PM on March 21, 2009


I'm a linguist by training and vocation, and take (mostly) to heart the criticisms of Pullum and others.

But.

What do most people remember after reading Strunk and White--at least those who remember it fondly? I think two things.

One is the rule: Omit needless words. This doesn't mean "make sentences shorter." It means: "don't say what you don't need to say." Practically, it means: look at what you've written, and revise until it says just what it needs to say.

The second thing: the delight one can have in language and writing and communicating well. Strunk loved language. White loved Strunk's love of language, and learned to love it, too. And this is passed on to us.

The other rules are largely forgotten (though foxy_hedgehog remembers the that/which distinction). Even these, though, further taught me that (prescriptive) grammar existed. I grew up using "seen" as the simple past tense of "see." Me, the linguist, understands why this is just as adequate as "saw." I, the professional, am glad for some of the prescriptivism that taught me what many see as "better."
posted by wfitzgerald at 7:23 PM on March 21, 2009 [7 favorites]


The criticism of this book seems to fall into two categories: those who think the book dated and those who believe the book wrong on any number of points.
And though so often referred to as "a bible," it never really helps you to understand what makes for a good sentence or what to do to fix bad sentences.
posted by Postroad at 7:25 PM on March 21, 2009


Great book.
Know the rules, and break the rules, but not the one about omitting needless words.
posted by caddis at 7:26 PM on March 21, 2009


I gave each of my kids a copy of this book while they were in high school, and later was shocked to learn that most of the younger employees in our firm had never heard of it... It should be required reading for anyone who intends to use the English language.
posted by VicNebulous at 7:35 PM on March 21, 2009


Conciserize.
posted by WPW at 7:55 PM on March 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


The internet would be much more legible.

I suspect that "intelligible" is preferable to "legible," as just about anything rendered in a 12-point Arial font on a computer monitor is assuredly legible. Cite: Snark and White
posted by joe lisboa at 8:10 PM on March 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Dumb question: How does it compare to The Chicago Manual of Style, or does it compare? I considered The Chicago Manual of Style the definitive go-to back when I was editing a monthly publication in the mid 90's, and never looked at The Elements of Style. Is one aimed more at editors & their ilk & the other at writers? Or are they at conflict with one another? Is there a great war between Chicagoists and The Strunk & Whiteists?

I ask because I'm truly ignorant.

FWIW, it took me SIX issues of a 28-32 page monthly journal (all levels of skill, from myriad writers -- from trip reports written by grade-school kids, to abstracts of doctoral dissertations) before I finally sent one to press without a typo. That was a big day.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:11 PM on March 21, 2009


I agree with some of the criticisms of it, but damn, whenever I've got a paragraph that looks vaguely wrong somehow, Strunk and White will always have the answer and what I need to do to correct it. It's a handy little reference.
posted by harriet vane at 8:44 PM on March 21, 2009


And though so often referred to as "a bible," it never really helps you to understand what makes for a good sentence or what to do to fix bad sentences.


Wait. The Bible would help you understand what makes for a good what?
The Bible would help you undertand what to do to fix bad what?

People? Deeds?

I'm just curious
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:55 PM on March 21, 2009


The lawnmower that is broken is in the garage. (Describes the object)
The lawnmower, which is broken, is in the garage. (Adds a fact about the object in question)


The broken lawnmower is in the garage.

It suffers from all of the disadvantages of stuffy prescriptivism, and its brevity prevents any meaningful discussion of complex issues of usage.

Compare Elements of Style with Politics of the English Language, and you'll they are both saying the same thing: keep it simple, stupid.

Elements of Style is meant for writers, not academics.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:25 PM on March 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Admittedly I'm not a native speaker but Jeezy Chreezy has that book done some major damage to a lot of people's perceptions of the English language. The Strunk version started as a list of things that bugged this one particular professor that he handed out to students as a manual for how to write for his classes. White, his former student, added his own particular list of bugaboos and prescriptions to it and then later nameless editors have chimed in with their own pet peeves creating some hopeless heap of a book that pretends to be some sort of final word on what is good English style (see Frankenstrunk for more).

I've come across people who'll cite it in discussions about language and style. As if it's some kind of argument in and of itself for an opinion that the same opinion is put forth in Strunk & White. A lot of people are given it at an impressionable age which leads them to think that there are clear-cut rules for style, but goddammit, there aren't! Language is an incredibly complicated thing. Not only are languages complicated structures with a great number of oddities and weirdnesses but they're also constantly evolving and, on top of that, have geographical variations. Too pretend that there exist simple precepts for how to write good style is not only ignorant but also actively damaging to people's understanding of what language is. I'm with Geoff Pullum, throw that book in the trash.
posted by Kattullus at 9:40 PM on March 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Omit needless words. Well, duh. Pullman does a good hatchet job on the book. Browse your local bookstore's writing reference section and you can find better guides on how to write...although they may not be quite so succinct.
posted by kozad at 9:59 PM on March 21, 2009


How does it compare to The Chicago Manual of Style

So now this is just kind of effed up. If you even know what the Chicago Manual of Style is, and you don't know what is in Strunk and White, well your educators should be shot.
posted by caddis at 10:04 PM on March 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


omit needless words

A big wholly meh. Superfluous waste of soil is every cathedral, and watered in passive voice by gargoyles, and adverbial mostly everything, and tense needless things will ever grow on stems. Therefore, just as the rest of fair usa is uneconomical & not on sale, just so noone is wasting words. And even Rilke uses adverbs, you spendthrift ziplips okay okay, You win E B White. I can't write like this anymore. Must shower off the beatnik before beaten by police.
posted by kid ichorous at 11:00 PM on March 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think it's fantastic. That doesn't make me a "prescriptivist" (an epithet more often a straw man than accurate) or a fuddy-duddy. It's a good guide to what's standard and effective. The quick-reference format is extremely valuable, too. For example, when you're arguing with editors about which grammar changes are necessary and which are intrusions, it helps tremendously to be able to read out a couple authoritative sentences on how things are done.

There's a ridiculous culture war over grammar and usage, with conservatives calling for a return to (often spurious!) rules and liberals witch-hunting for prescriptivists (I'm looking at you, Language Log). They're all of them assholes.
posted by grobstein at 11:47 PM on March 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's a good guide to what's standard and effective. The quick-reference format is extremely valuable, too. For example, when you're arguing with editors about which grammar changes are necessary and which are intrusions, it helps tremendously to be able to read out a couple authoritative sentences on how things are done.


This is exactly what Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage is for. Seriously, get that book and use Strunk and White for entertainment purposes only.
posted by Bizurke at 12:20 AM on March 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


If you even know what the Chicago Manual of Style is, and you don't know what is in Strunk and White, well your educators should be shot.

Academics and grad students use, and are frequently told to use, Turabian and the Chicago Manual of Style. I've never heard of anyone in the social sciences being assigned Strunk and White.
posted by raysmj at 12:48 AM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


My dad bought me my very own copy of Strunk and White when I was a little girl, maybe 8 or 9. He was very earnest about it: I was old enough to write now, and this book would teach me everything I needed to know to be a Good Writer. I knew already that being a good writer was the highest calling there was, even above being a good sailor. I could not have been more awestruck if it were my first communion. We went out for ice cream after the bookstore.
posted by Methylviolet at 1:01 AM on March 22, 2009 [6 favorites]


Linguist Geoffrey Pullum of Language Log fame also hates the shit out of Strunk & White.

Who cares? Why would a linguist have any special insight into how to write strong English prose? Do we consult chemists to teach us how to season food with salt? Do sculptors in marble learn their trade from geologists? Cooks benefit from studying kitchen chemistry, and sculptors from a visit to the quarry, but chemists are not automatically good cooks, and a knowledge of geology does not confer the ability to sculpt marble. These are different skills and different realms of knowledge.

Pullum's argument about adjectives is silly, his logic is flawed, and his prose is undistinguished. Let him write as well as E.B. White, and I will take his opinions about prose style more seriously.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 3:18 AM on March 22, 2009 [8 favorites]


I've never looked at a Strunk & White before, but I have to say, the advice "be clear" and "omit needless words" seems pretty good to me. I translate German academic prose for a living, and I'd estimate that on average about a third of every sentence is needless and the other two thirds much less clear than they could be. The needless stuff includes pointless filler and awkward sentence beginnings like "What this is about is..." (the writers seem terrified of just directly saying a thing without warming up to it), as well as just plain redundancies like "this resulted in the result that...". Often writers don't notice how much redundancy or even tautology they've written because they've packed 3-4 subordinate clauses in between, which they also shouldn't do, but if they were to re-read with an eye to "omitting needless words" it could certainly improve their prose. In all seriousness, a few people I work for would end up with only half of their text left. Oh yeah, and the lack of clarity comes among other things from exclusively using the passive voice. I might buy a copy and start loaning it out to everyone I know here.
posted by creasy boy at 4:17 AM on March 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Raise your hand if you still own the original copy of S&W that you were required to buy for freshman English.

My hand is in the air people because S&W language usage rules may now be from another time and place but when it was required reading in freshman English in 1965 it gave me some structure to guide my prose. The simple statements about writing style immediately became a measuring stick for everything I wrote. It was, and still is, an easy read which makes it useful for consultation. The correctness of the rules in this age of emoticons and cyberspeak is debatable but I still own that book and find it helpful. I, for one, will buy a 50th anniversary edition out of appreciation and give one to each of my grandchildren.
posted by birdwatcher at 5:13 AM on March 22, 2009


I qwrite. People read my writing and tell me I am not clear. I go to "the bible" (aka S&W) and am told "be clear." Ok. Now I know.
posted by Postroad at 5:14 AM on March 22, 2009


The broken lawnmower is in the garage.

The point, which is about when and how to use "which" and "that," is missed.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:24 AM on March 22, 2009


So now this is just kind of effed up. If you even know what the Chicago Manual of Style is, and you don't know what is in Strunk and White, well your educators should be shot.

I have no educators to shoot. I skated through school with the least possible effort the whole way, from Kindergarten, on. I failed the 11th grade & had to take 2 extra classes my senior year to graduate high school. They were Weight-Lifting & Tennis, I think. I can't recall more then two teachers who gave a shit whether I lived or died my entire childhood, and they were wholly frustrated in their efforts to get me to conform to the rigors of the classroom; except for my woodshop teacher. That was my refuge for 2 years -- that and the Denny's next door. College was not an option.

Did you not see the "stupid question -- I'm ignorant" part, or did you overlook that for the simple joy of insultment?
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:46 AM on March 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


The Homeowners' Association, which has sent us repeated notices, wants to know when you plan on fixing the ever-loving lawnmower, that is still in the garage.
posted by steef at 7:34 AM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


It should be required reading for anyone who intends to use the English language.

Jesus Fucking Christ. (Oh dear, omit needless words, I could have just written "Jesus" or "Christ"!) Every time I read sensible comments about how you can take what you need and leave the rest and start to calm down and think "well, maybe it isn't as bad as all that," I read a comment like "It should be required reading for anyone who intends to use the English language" and go back to my default position of insensate rage and a desire to throw every existing copy of that little poison pill into the trash.

Like Bizurke says, if you want a good, reliable style guide for general use, get Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage. If you want the kind of style guide copyeditors use, with rules about capitalization and footnotes, get Chicago. If you want a few obvious guidelines mixed in with mountains of useless bullshit, by all means join the Strunk Brigade; the book is cheap, and it will allow you a cheap sense of superiority.

Speaking of which: Devils Rancher, your question was perfectly good. Ignore the unearned snark.
posted by languagehat at 7:57 AM on March 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


S&W advocate the active voice, so... uh... The garage contains the broken lawnmover.
posted by rlk at 8:38 AM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


rlk: The garage contains the broken lawnmover

Contain sounds awfully similar to contact, a "vague and self-important" verb. Surely it should be the garage encircles the broken lawnmower.
posted by Kattullus at 9:05 AM on March 22, 2009


Style guides are useful now and again.

An English professor of mine once steered me towards Joseph M. Williams Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, which I have on hand whenever I sit down to write. I don't write perfect English, but then I don't try to. An author has to decide whether he's more concerned with meeting the expectations of the language or the reader.

Although even Williams pales in comparison to my favorite champion of style: Terry Pratchett. He's written dozens of books on the subject.
posted by burnfirewalls at 9:15 AM on March 22, 2009


The broken lawnmower is in the garage.

The point, which is about when and how to use "which" and "that," is missed.


Ah, I get it now. Still, it's best to avoid using "which" and "that" in the first place.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:17 AM on March 22, 2009


If you even know what the Chicago Manual of Style is, and you don't know what is in Strunk and White, well your educators should be shot.

They're just used for different things. Chicago is what any grad student or person writing for academic publication is told to reference. It has specific requirements for the standards of publication - how to cite translated journal articles, or whether to use brackets or parentheses. It does also have sections on grammar and word usage, though I don't know how often people refer to those... But the point is, it's to clarify academic standards.

Strunk & White is a slim little book that you get in maybe high school that rambles in an endearing old-fashioned style about how to be a good writer. I don't think I was ever told to read it by a teacher, or if I was, it was a suggestion rather than an assignment. I feel like just as likely was that an adult friend, upon learning that I enjoyed writing, told me about it, though.

In any case, I don't remember much about it now, and I certainly don't reference it for academic papers, nor would I expect it to be on anyone's nearby bookshelf. You wouldn't generally browse the Chicago Manual for fun or for insight - it is just a reference book, like a dictionary. You find yourself stuck with an issue - should I italicize foreign words? - and can look it up [p291, 15th ed.]

For me, Strunk & White was more like an introduction to the idea that there were things you could do to consciously improve your writing style. I think of it as a book that writerish types probably read at one time or another, but not something that's regularly looked to for answers.
posted by mdn at 9:48 AM on March 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


For me, Strunk & White was more like an introduction to the idea that there were things you could do to consciously improve your writing style.

For you, then, it was a Good Thing. If only that were the effect it had on everyone!
posted by languagehat at 11:01 AM on March 22, 2009


but whenever you're looking at "rules of writing,"

There are no "rules of writing". Or haven't you been paying attention?

For you, then, it was a Good Thing. If only that were the effect it had on everyone!

A certain subset of the population is looking for "rules of writing" and will take any text on writing to be a bible of rules which have to be followed and then proceed to make pains in the ass of themselves.

The core of S&W is not hard and fast rules but the idea that utilitarian written language should be made as clear and easy to read as possible; that words should be selected carefully by finding the ones that contain the entire intended meaning and only that meaning without excess. That's the message I took from it, even though I gleefully disregard many of the curmudgeonly rules it contains. I think S&W helps many beginning writers and have especially recommended it to my graduate students when they begin the process of writing a dissertation proposal. It never ceases to amaze me just how poorly many supposedly well educated baccalaureates write.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:27 AM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


If only that were the effect it had on everyone!

As an example of the effect it has had on me, I read that sentence and immediately thought:
If only it had that effect on everyone!
I spend a lot of time reading papers written by scientists for submission to medical and biological journals and trying to help them communicate their ideas in a way other scientists can understand. In general, these authors are the most verbose, inarticulate group (there are blessed exceptions) who confuse the need for complexity in their content with the need for complexity in the way they write.

They need to read S&W IMO.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:41 AM on March 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Speaking of which: Devils Rancher, your question was perfectly good. Ignore the unearned snark.

Thanks. you confirmed what I was intuiting, that Chicago is for Editors & S&W is for writers. Or the dustbin, whichever. I will say that Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web were both fine pieces of children's writing, though. I read them on my own, without any encouragement from educators.

And upon further reflection, maybe my educators do need to be shot, anyway. I have some lingering resentments there.
posted by Devils Rancher at 12:12 PM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


>> If only that were the effect it had on everyone!

>As an example of the effect it has had on me, I read that sentence and immediately thought:

> If only it had that effect on everyone!


These aren't the same at all!

The first bemoans some different effect it's had; the second hopes everyone reads it and experiences the same effect.
posted by palliser at 12:26 PM on March 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


I read that sentence and immediately thought: If only it had that effect on everyone!

What palliser said. The thrust of my sentence is completely lost in your rewrite. This is not a slam at you—you weren't actually editing my sentence, and as you said it was just an instant reaction—but it's a nice example of the harm that can be done by an uncritical worship of their "rules": cut a few words out and it's got to be better! (I shudder to think of the results if S&W were unleashed on, say, Faulkner.)

I will say that Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web were both fine pieces of children's writing, though.

Oh, absolutely. White was a terrific writer, however curmudgeonly his views on writing.
posted by languagehat at 1:23 PM on March 22, 2009


Still, it's best to avoid using "which" and "that" in the first place.

Only if you're not clear on how they're used. If you are clear, they're very useful.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:28 PM on March 22, 2009


Only if you're not clear on how they're used. If you are clear, they're very useful.

Heh, I see what you did there. You said I'm stupid! Leave it to MetaFilter to create a heated debate about grammar and style.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:16 PM on March 22, 2009


Omit needless books.
posted by cogneuro at 7:36 PM on March 22, 2009


I've never looked at a Strunk & White before, but I have to say, the advice "be clear" and "omit needless words" seems pretty good to me.

Well, sure. But "be clear" is pretty obvious, and "omit needless works" does depend strongly on what is and is not needless, no?

Neither of these pieces of advice is particularly helpful once the pen hits the paper or the fingers hit the keyboard.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:00 PM on March 22, 2009


Well, no, my whole point is that it may not be obvious; that clarity as a stylistic virtue may not be at the forefront of everyone's mind when they sit down to write. Lots of people start obfuscating and using more passive voice as soon as they start writing, because they seem to think it sounds more "official" or something. I saw this when I was teaching English in an American high school. And then I moved to Germany and hoo boy is expository style in a serious clusterfuck here. It seems to me that there's an Anglo-Saxon tradition of emphasizing clarity, so you may have no idea how bad it can get. It can get pretty goddamn bad.

This really isn't too much of a parody of what I tend to get:

"What it is about here is, a very interesting, discussion-provoking result of the study resulted from the study procedure carried out."

If you're talking about a study that you did, then you don't need to call your procedure a "study procedure", nor do you need to mention that the procedure was "carried out", but I see both of these things constantly. They are not needed. You do not need both adjectives "interesting" and "discussion-provoking". You don't need to say that the result resulted -- we can figure that out on our own. Basically all that needs to be said here is: "Our procedure led to a very interesting result: ... " This person hasn't even gotten to the point yet, which is to name the actual results. The advice to omit needless words is very easy to apply here, yet no-one's done it.

The American tradition can look back on Hemingway and Bukowski and Raymond Chandler and Raymond Carver and others who specifically sought a more concise and clear prose. Other national traditions may not have the equivalent. The only German author I can think of who really strove for stylistic clarity above all else is Martin Luther. The fact that the advice "be clear" seems fatuous to you may be the result of a lot of people like E.B. White endlessly repeating "be clear" until it became largely second nature.
posted by creasy boy at 3:00 AM on March 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


You said I'm stupid!

No, I didn't. The worst you could take away from what I wrote is that you're not clear on how to use which and that, which would imply ignorance (again, at worst).

The argument is one that you created with your assertion that two perfectly useful words should not be used. If you'd supply some of the reasoning behind that assertion, we could bump the argument up to a discussion.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:10 AM on March 23, 2009


The only German author I can think of who really strove for stylistic clarity above all else is Martin Luther.

Kafka!
posted by languagehat at 5:24 AM on March 23, 2009


My favorite take on the omission of needless words is E.B. White's description of Will Strunk delivering the message, "his short hair parted neatly in the middle and combed down over his forehead, his eyes blinking incessantly behind steel-rimmed spectacles as though he had just emerged into strong light, his lips nibbling each other like nervous horses, his smile shuttling to and fro under a carefully edged mustache":
In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself — a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had out-distanced the clock. Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times. When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, "Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!"
More on Prof. Strunk's self-refuting maxims can be found here.
posted by myl at 6:04 AM on March 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


The following quote offers a hint at Elwyn Brooks White's attitude towards the relationship among opinion, evidence, and reason:
The New Yorker is both aloof and friendly toward its opinionated contributors, and I am grateful for this. I am reasonably sure that if some trusty around the place were to submit an editorial demanding that the George Washington Bridge be moved sixty feet further upstream and thatched with straw, the editors would publish it, no questions asked.
More here.
posted by myl at 6:13 AM on March 23, 2009


There is a single rule in Strunk & White that simply MUST be obeyed: Love words before you write. It's beautiful for that alone. I read it and loved it, but I don't think I've ever referenced it once in my entire writing career.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 6:33 AM on March 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I bought my wife The Chicago Manual of Style. It's giant, and she could use it to defend herself from would be muggers.
posted by chunking express at 6:35 AM on March 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


The only German author I can think of who really strove for stylistic clarity above all else is Martin Luther.

Kafka!


You know, you might be more right about that than I thought. I'd remembered him as having a very convoluted and baroque style, but that's probably because my favorite story of his is "Report to an Academy", which purposefully takes on a professorial tone. Still:

"Die schwere Verwundung Gregors, an der er über einen Monat litt -- der Apfel blieb, da ihn niemand zu entfernen wagte, als sichtbares Andneken im Fleische sitzen --, schien selbst den Vater daran einnert zu haben, daß Gregor trotz seiner gegenwärtigen traurigen und ekelhaften Gestalt ein Familienmitglied war, das man nicht wie einen Feind behandeln durfte, sondern dem gegenüber es das Gebot der Familienpflicht war, den Widerwillen hinunterzuschlucken und zu dulden, nichts als zu dulden."

I guess this fulfills White's dictums, but it doesn't exactly revolutionize prose in the direction of sparse simplicity like the American authors I named. It doesn't reduce and reduce like Bukowski. Nothing in that paragraph is unnecessary for Kafka -- it all works in his style -- but the innovation of Bukowski and Hemingway was to create a style that made do with less, that made a lot more things unnecessary. I don't mean that as a crack at Kafka, by any means. But it just seems to me that the virtues of clarity and succintness are more self-evident to any American with even a mild affinity for language, and this might be a result of people like White among others.
posted by creasy boy at 7:13 AM on March 23, 2009


I bought copies for each of my kids when they were in high school. They didn't think much of it until more than a few of their teachers commented on their dad's brilliance. I think it's one of three books I brought home after graduating college... The thinnest and most useful of them all.
posted by VicNebulous at 7:17 AM on March 23, 2009


Love words before you write.

I have always loved words, though I can't tell an adjective from a pronoun. I used to make lists of cool-sounding words I discovered in the dictionary. I totally wore out my Webster's collegiate just thumbing through it by the time I was 20, and finally got me an unabridged (ready to battle all ill-intentioned wielders of Chicago) a few years later. It's marked all to hell. See, you can't shoot my educators, because they are me. Not to be shooting me!
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:10 AM on March 23, 2009


creasy boy: the innovation of Bukowski and Hemingway was to create a style that made do with less, that made a lot more things unnecessary.

This idea was very prevalent in modernism all around the world and certainly didn't originate with Hemingway, not even in English (Stein was his direct influence). Off the top of my head I can think of Daniil Kharms and Jorge Luis Borges as two other short story writers who wrote similarly sparse prose (or so I believe, I have only read them in translation).
posted by Kattullus at 9:40 AM on March 23, 2009


The thrust of my sentence is completely lost in your rewrite.

Well, perhaps there is a lot of hidden meaning there that got lost, but it was lost on me, a fairly intelligent reader (I don't know; judge for yourself), in the first place, so I guess you must be writing for the really, super, super smart and not folks like me.

These aren't the same at all!

The first bemoans some different effect it's had; the second hopes everyone reads it and experiences the same effect.


I couldn't disagree more with this parsing of the two statements. I don't see that languagehat's formulation carries all the implications you (and he) hope it does, at least not to this average reader. I mean, the subjunctive is cool and all, just not necessary to convey they ostensive meaning here.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:31 AM on March 23, 2009


There are all kinds of pedants around with more time to read and imitate Lynne Truss and John Humphrys than to write poems, love-letters, novels and stories it seems. They whip out their Sharpies and take away and add apostrophes from public signs, shake their heads at prepositions which end sentences and mutter at split infinitives and misspellings, but do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever let the tripping of the tips of their tongues against the tops of their teeth transport them to giddy euphoric bliss? Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it? Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to? Do they? I doubt it. They’re too farting busy sneering at a greengrocer’s less than perfect use of the apostrophe. Well sod them to Hades. They think they’re guardians of language. They’re no more guardians of language than the Kennel Club is the guardian of dogkind.

Thus spake Fry. I tend to agree with him.
posted by tiny crocodile at 11:48 AM on March 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I came across Strunk and White as an audiobook the other day. I don't have strong feelings either way as to the book's value, but I thought that an audiobook of it was one of the more useless things I'd seen in quite a while.
posted by bristolcat at 12:05 PM on March 23, 2009


I couldn't disagree more with this parsing of the two statements. I don't see that languagehat's formulation carries all the implications you (and he) hope it does

So the fact that someone else reads the two sentences the same way as I do doesn't shake your faith in your own reading, you just think it's a weird coincidence? Here, let me see if I can make it clearer:

If only that were the effect it had on everyone!

This puts the emphasis on the specific effect, as opposed to other effects—in this case, it means "If only everyone saw the book simply as an introduction to the idea that there were things you could do to consciously improve your writing style [and didn't see it as some sort of divine tablet handed down from Mt. Sinai]." But this:

If only it had that effect on everyone!

...simply says "If only everyone saw the book as an introduction to the idea that there were things you could do to consciously improve your writing style," with no implication about other effects—the very effects I have been deploring. That is not what I wanted to say. If you can't see the difference, S&W would not appear to have done you much good.
posted by languagehat at 2:14 PM on March 23, 2009


Also, the subjunctive is irrelevant (my statement could have been worded without it: "If only that was the effect it had on everyone"—it's the fronting of "the effect" that matters), and I don't know what you mean by "ostensive."
posted by languagehat at 2:16 PM on March 23, 2009


I mean, the subjunctive is cool and all, just not necessary to convey they ostensive meaning here.

Either way it's subjunctive. In the second example ("If only it had that effect on everyone!") we have "had," not the present indicative "has." Outside of that contrary-to-fact statement you'd say "It has that effect on everyone," I think. It's analogous to German hat vs. hätte.
posted by dd42 at 3:40 PM on March 23, 2009


It's more of a contrary-to-fact wish than a statement, actually. Like German "Wenn nur" or Greek εἴ γὰρ.
posted by dd42 at 3:43 PM on March 23, 2009


Of course that accentuation should be εἰ γάρ.
posted by dd42 at 3:45 PM on March 23, 2009


The first bemoans some different effect it's had; the second hopes everyone reads it and experiences the same effect.

I couldn't disagree more with this parsing of the two statements. I don't see that languagehat's formulation carries all the implications you (and he) hope it does, at least not to this average reader.


Many readers respond to word placement (Chicago even notes that you needn't italicize words that are emphasized by being in a prominent place in the sentence). Due to coming early in the sentence, the first version says "if only that were the effect.." while the second says "if only it had that effect..." - although perhaps the argument could be made that both do contain both words. Still, you'd have to italicize to clarify ("if only it had that effect on everyone") whereas altering the word order shifts the focus more naturally.
posted by mdn at 6:05 PM on March 23, 2009


This thread is the wordiest paean to the omission of needless words that I have ever seen.
posted by No-sword at 7:29 AM on March 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


KokuRyu: Still, it's best to avoid using "which" and "that" in the first place.

QED: That which was to be demonstrated.
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:59 PM on March 24, 2009


Kattullus: Surely it should be the garage encircles the broken lawnmower.

The garage pwns the broken lawnmower.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:00 PM on March 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


This thread is the wordiest paean to the omission of needless words that I have ever seen.

Incisive metadiscourse ftw.
posted by hpliferaft at 9:32 PM on March 24, 2009


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