STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Today the definite guide to English writing standards turns 50. It's called "Strunk And White: The Elements of Style." And to commemorate the occasion, its publisher, Pearson, is releasing an elegantly bound black and gold anniversary edition, and Renee picked up a copy.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And Steve, you did that very nicely.
INSKEEP: Well, I tried to do the best grammar that I could.
MONTAGNE: Grammar's perfect, lovely way of putting those sentences together. E.B. White, of course, wrote the children's classics "Charlotte's Webb" and "Stuart Little." A whimsical writer he was, but White never forgot the lessons of good writing taught to him by a professor of a far more strict temperament, William Strunk.
Years later, E.B. White revived his old professor's edicts in what became something of a word bible. Barbara Wallraff, who writes about language, is among those celebrating the new edition and the virtues of its writing rules.
Ms. BARBARA WALLRAFF (Author): There's a certain Zen quality to some of them, like be clear. There's a lot being conveyed there in two words, and exactly how to do it, people will spend whole other books explaining.
Or, omit needless words. That's probably the most famous dictum from this book. Write with nouns and verbs, do not overwrite, avoid fancy words. They want people to say as directly as possible what it is being said. There's a really sweet little paragraph about omit needless word in E.B. White's introduction.
Omit needles words, cries the author on page 23. And into that imperative Will Strunk really put his heart and soul. 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, Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick. He uttered every sentence three times.
MONTAGNE: As in, omit needless words, omit needless words, omit needless words?
Ms. WALLRAFF: Omit needless words.
MONTAGNE: You know, along with the 50th anniversary edition, there are some letters back and forth, a telegram, some articles, about the publication of this - what turned out to be a classic style guide. We'll have some of these on our website, npr.org.
But there's a telegram here to Macmillan, the publisher. It appears to be from a book supplier in Berkeley. And it ends - just a couple of lines saying, you know, send us more.
Ms. WALLRAFF: In addition, send 300 more, college edition, whole campus gone wild. A lost world, indeed.
MONTAGNE: If in fact the "Elements of Style" hasn't gone out of date, people who still use it, how has it changed over time?
Ms. WALLRAFF: Well, Renee, in minor ways it has gone out of date. If you were going to ask me to put into fewer than a hundred pages, the most important things every writer needs to know, I don't think I would be counseling them to be careful not to confuse allude and elude. I wouldn't describe how the word clever applies differently to people and horses.
And yet, when you look at that words and expressions commonly misused, there are many more things that are totally up to date. The difference between can and may, between effect and affect, and the brand new one that's just out, the only thing they have changed or added besides giving it a nicer binding, is a selection of quotes up front form writers.
And I have to say, the very earliest one they've got is my absolute favorite. Dorothy Parker was asked to review the book for Esquire. She said, if you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of the "Elements of Style." The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they're happy.
MONTAGNE: That's Dorothy Parker for you.
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MONTAGNE: Barbara Wallraff is the author of "Word Fugitives: In Pursuit of Wanted Words." Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" turns 50 today.
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