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Home > Features > Meditations on The Elements of Style

Meditations on The Elements of Style

by Ron Sudol
Associate Provost, Professor of Rhetoric, and Director of the Meadow Brook Writing Project
Oakland University
Rochester, Michigan

Defining Style
As a concept, "style" is hard to pin down.

In one sense, style seems to refer to all the elements of language and structure evident on the surface of a text. But when you try to analyze those surface features, you find yourself very quickly being drawn beneath the surface into the realm of rhetoric with its focus on context, audience, and purpose. Students in AP English are expected to be able to analyze the stylistic features of a text, but they are also expected to write their analyses with a certain level of stylistic excellence.

What, they may wonder, is the connection between these two senses of the word "style"? In one sense, style seems to refer to controlling and revealing personality and intention through words (Thoreau's style, Baroque style, or journalistic style, for example). In another, it seems to refer to rules that govern fine writing (writing with style, improving your style, or avoiding stylistic lapses, for example).

The connection between these senses of style, it seems to me, is that anything we identify as an element of style must be the result of a choice of some kind. Our analysis of an author's style is in effect an analysis of the author's choices -- this word, syntactical pattern, image, or figure has been chosen instead of some other one. The same choices confront us as writers. An army of candidates present themselves to the practiced writer, who chooses tentatively at first, perhaps, but then, finally, with confidence.

The study of style is the study of how these choices reflect reasoned thought, creative energy, or guiding principles. One reason it is hard to get students to revise effectively is that they have not yet had enough experience as writers (or as readers) to recognize the range of choices available to them, or the guiding principles that would reveal what choices may exist. And, come to think of it, one reason their stylistic analyses are often mechanical is that they have not yet fully realized that the authors whose work they are studying have made choices from a broad palate of possibilities.

I emphasize choice as the key element of style in order to move grammar, usage, and mechanics to the sidelines. The writer has little choice in the realms of grammar, usage, and mechanics, except to be right or wrong, conventional or unconventional, modish or eccentric. Choosing between who or whom, affect or effect, its or it's, color or colour is hardly a choice at all. Nevertheless, textbooks and handbooks, for perfectly understandable reasons, lump all surface features of text together, leading students to believe that style (like grammar, usage, and mechanics) is subject to prescriptive rules.

Praise for the "Little Book"
And, indeed, advice about style often comes packaged as rules. A case in point is The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White (fourth edition, Longman, 2000). Of the book's five sections, three deal with subjects on which the student writer has little choice ("Elementary Rules of Usage," "A Few Matters of Form," and "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused"), and two deal with subjects on which the student writer has a great deal of choice ("Elementary Principles of Composition" and "An Approach to Style"). So even though it purports to convey the elements of style, the entire book reads like a book of rules.

This is an ambiguity I can live with because one of the book's many charms is its idiom of collegial shoptalk, as if the apprentice writer were being tutored in the lore of how to make choices, even in the cases where a choice is merely to be conventional and correct. Generally, the choices that empower writers are the ones they make in the light of clear-headed logic and common sense. That is the valuable, if somewhat subliminal, message of The Elements of Style.

Called affectionately the "little book" by several generations of grateful users, it is a worthy substitute for larger, but not by any means better, handbooks. At less than 100 pages it is truly handy. With only 22 points about usage and 21 "reminders" about style, everything is readily at hand without the need for color-coded tabs. Indeed, it is even readable cover-to-cover in a single sitting, an event unthinkable for most other handbooks.

The evolution of this book is the stuff of legend within the community of English teachers. In 1957, essayist E. B. White came upon a copy of this privately published work -- even littler then at 43 pages -- written by his Cornell University professor, William Strunk, Jr. White had been a student in Strunk's class in 1919, and looking at the little book anew he found it "to contain rich deposits of gold" and an "attempt to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin." A publisher commissioned White to revise the book and write an introduction for the growing college market, where it has flourished.

Strunk's attitude toward style is that English is more beautiful the more direct and spare it is. As White notes in the introduction, "for sheer pith I think it probably sets a record that is not likely to be broken." The students at Cornell in 1919 were probably more wordy and pretentious than students today, whose writing is more often underdeveloped and oversimple. Nevertheless, the lessons -- and that's exactly the right word for the direct orders issued by Strunk and White -- are eternally valuable to anyone who wants to take writing seriously. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject. Put statements in positive form. Use the active voice. Omit needless words. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

The little book explains each principle and offers illustrations (brought up to date by White) of the offense and its correction, the false and the true, the timid and the bold. White has preserved the bemused crankiness of the old professor in such a way that the student writer will hear the bark but not feel the bite. Making stylistic choices in a terrain where the good and the bad are so sharply delineated starts to get easier. Once Strunk and White convince you that emphatic words placed at the end of a sentence are more effective, you have a reliable guideline for making choices.

Even while it preserves the eternal verities of the language, however, the little book's early-twentieth-century provenance accounts for some of its antique flavors. Students will have to know what a restrictive clause is, for example. And the injunction to "Be Clear" reflects an older approach to style that does not adequately account for the rhetorical situation. These days we would not just say "be clear" as if the writer were deliberately obfuscating. Clarity has to do with the writer's understanding of the position of the reader -- that is, understanding the rhetorical situation, as much as understanding the mysteries of style.

But that's a rhetorical choice. We need someone to give us a comparable 100-page little book on the elements of rhetoric.


Ron Sudol is associate provost and professor of rhetoric at Oakland University, a public university in Michigan. He has been a Reader of the AP English Language and Composition Exam for 17 years and has offered workshops on English language and English Vertical Teams for the Midwest regional office of the College Board. He is currently a member of the College Board's English Advisory Committee.


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