Principles of Plainspeak -- A Concise Updating of Elements
The San Francisco Chronicle
, October 10, 1999


Fourth Edition, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
Allyn and Bacon; 105 pages; $6.95 paperback

George Orwell laid the philosophical foundation for the form of English several of his disciples labeled "Plainspeak." But Strunk and White's Elements of Style was the playbook that made Plainspeak the standard for 20th century American writing. Whether they know it or not, virtually all American writers today express themselves, more or less successfully, in the language Strunk and White prescribed. They'd be hard-pressed to avoid it. Ten million copies of The Elements of Style have been published, and 250,000 more pour off the presses every year. It has long been a mainstay of the college composition curriculum.

Strunk and White have also been influential in journalism. For decades The Elements of Style was the literary bible of hard-bitten city editors, and they thrust it upon cub reporters with the insistence of street preachers. As a result, the style assaulted the larger culture from not only the classroom, but the newsroom as well.

The publication of a fourth edition of -- the first in two decades -- is an event of some importance to those of us who bang on keyboards for a living. Familiarity with it remains a requirement for anybody who aspires to a career in writing. And it has some value even for those who shun the agony of composition. No book does more to explain the form of English that Americans read in their books, magazines and newspapers.

Its history spans most of the century it has so influenced. William Strunk Jr. developed what came to be known as "the little book" in 1919 and used it in teaching his Cornell English classes. It was a pioneering effort at codifying the standards then emerging for 20th century English. Fowler's Modern English Usage, the much more elaborate British equivalent, appeared in 1926, and Orwell's more theoretical interest in language developed even later. E.B. White, a Strunk student, took his professor's guidebook to heart and used its principles to become one of the country's great essayists, a consummate stylist who added to the luster of his long career at the New Yorker with children's classics such as Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little.

In 1957 White added a chapter to Strunk's existing summary of Plainspeak's core principles. The book went into general circulation, instantly found a huge, approving audience and passed through two more minor revisions in the 1970s. This fourth edition hews to the original, neither adding much of value nor doing much to detract from its genius. And it remains blessedly short. Strunk's classroom handout was a mere 43 pages. White stuck with that terse spirit, noting that "even after I got through tampering with it, it was still a tiny thing, a barely tarnished gem" of 85 pages. This latest rendition has added a glossary and an index, but still tops out at a reasonable 105 pages.

The book's brevity is one key to its influence -- and a core element in its philosophy. That's the sense in which it most clearly echoes Orwell's 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," a passionate plea for writing that aimed to reveal, rather than conceal.

Orwell savaged political writing that served as a "defense of the indefensible" with language heavy on "euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness." But his recipe for truth and clarity -- use of a terse, direct style and an everyday English vocabulary -- also represented a dramatic departure from Victorian standards. Strunk had already spelled out the same principles in greater detail. His chapter on "Elementary Principles of Composition" listed guidelines that virtually define good prose for today's professional writers. They have so displaced the ornate curlicues of earlier English that they now seem rudimentary. "Use the active voice," Strunk proclaims (Principle No. 14). "Use definite, specific, concrete language" (No. 16) and "Omit needless words" (No. 17).

He offers a short guide to mechanics, too. His tour of grammar and usage is hardly exhaustive. But neither is it exhausting. And it addresses key bugaboos that still confound many writers. "Who" versus "whom." "That" versus "which." The difference between "disinterested" and "uninterested."

Most of the fourth edition updating has to do with modern sensibilities. It substitutes women for men in some illustrations (Toni Morrison stands in for Wordsworth) and completely eliminates some hopelessly dated views of gender roles. White's contribution to The Elements of Style is largely untouched. His chapter, "An Approach to Style," still moves beyond Strunk's primer on what is correct, and expands it to what is, as White put it, "distinguished and distinguishing."

White's own elegant style shines through here: simple, precise, a paragon of clarity and good taste. His language expresses the unadorned directness of Maine, his adopted home. "With some writers," he notes, "style not only reveals the spirit of the man but reveals his identity, as surely as would his fingerprints."

And White's style is a paragon of Plainspeak. His approach to the language is, he writes, "by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity." When, like Strunk, he organizes his principles into guideposts, he continually returns to his own modesty and lack of pretense. White's Principle No. 1, he says, is "place yourself in the background." No. 2 is to "write in a way that comes naturally." No. 14 is to "avoid fancy words." What could be more democratic? This is the book that took the virtues characterizing our own self-image as Americans and translated them into the very language we use to describe ourselves. In that sense, The Elements of Style did for our version of English what Plainspeak, properly executed, does for any individual stylist.

"All writing is communication," said White. "Creative writing is communication through revelation -- it is the Self escaping into the open."

Jack Hart is a managing editor at the Oregonian in Portland and the author of a column on writing for Editor & Publisher magazine.

©1999 San Francisco Chronicle
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