Sunday, February 10, 2013

Elements of Style

I immediately began reading The Elements of Style. So immediately, in fact, that I read it in the car on my way to Redeemed Music and Books, where I was hoping to sell two NOOMA DVDs, which I unfortunately did not.

I read the “Forward” by Roger Angell in the car, not wholly on the road, and have now just finished the “Introduction” while sitting at the safety of my kitchen table. Both short sections are worthy of my processing.

I’ve known of The Elements of Style for some time and, like many other students, was required to purchase and use it in class—whether middle or high school, I cannot remember. It was not until today, as I was reading the “Forward,” that I made the connection between E. B. White, the coauthor of this short book, and E. B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web. I also did not know that E. B. White was an essayist, but I am now motivated to dig up his old commentaries for The New Yorker.

The “Introduction” is by E. B. White, and was written for the 1979 edition. It begins with a retelling of White’s experiences in an English 8 class taught by William Strunk Jr. My strongest personal connection came near the end, as White wrote:

Style rules of this sort are, of course, somewhat a matter of individual preference, and even the established rules of grammar are open to challenge. Professor Strunk, although one of the most inflexible and choosy of men, was quick to acknowledge the fallacy of inflexibility and the danger of doctrine.

This explanation is, in my mind, so pivotal a point for any reader of the book to maintain. Strunk was clearly a particular fellow, with very clear and specific expectations for writing English, but, apparently, even he recognized that the “rules” he put forth are not “rules” to the extent that English teachers, like myself, currently teach “rules.” These rules are strong suggestions that any person who so desires to be a good writer could and should follow, evidenced by looking to good writing.

Why then, are these considered rules? Because when we look to good writing, this is what we see. Yes, occasionally these rules are broken, or ignored, or disregarded. But always, if studied closely enough, intentionally and thus for some effect.

This brings me to my second observation from the “Introduction.” Strunk was, as I see myself, very much a man sold on confidence—whether real or fake. White describes Strunk as a man who “scorned the vague, the tame, the colorless, the irresolute.” So, as Strunk might recognize that his rules are flexible, he would in no way present them as such. As a further illustration, White describes a class in which Strunk instructed his students to loudly mispronounce a word, if the correct pronunciation were unknown. “This comical piece of advice struck me as sound at the time, and I still respect it. Why compound ignorance with inaudibility? Why run and hide?”

I love the last question. It’s as if to say: “if you’re going to be wrong, and you know it, do it convincingly.” I rephrase, in my mind, this way: “Own whatever you do—right or wrong. Always do what you believe is right, and do it confidently. But when told otherwise, take heed.”

So, as I go about my duties as an 8th grade English teacher, I hope to learn from Strunk and White. I hope to gain insight for myself and for my students. And I hope to become a better writer and teacher along the way.

I make every commitment to be clear in my presentation, lofty in my expectations, stern in my corrections, and loud in my celebrations. I will own every bit of my instruction, and take heed when told otherwise. I will hold myself to a high standard, and when unmet, I hope those around me will be kind enough to instruct me otherwise. 

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