Wednesday, July 19, 2017

William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 2d Ed. (MacMillan, 1972)

I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets here, but a fair amount of atrocious writing is produced by otherwise esteemed members of the lawyering profession.

To be fair, a lot of the turgid and opaque prose is baked into forms of documents that have been used since time immemorial and read about as easily as Beowulf in original Old English₁.  In many cases particular wording has, over the years, acquired a judicial gloss with which few practitioners wish to tamper, even if they were so inclined (and most of us aren’t).

But in a profession in which effective communication is at the heart of what we do, too often what we write is not a model of clarity, and frequently induces bouts of head-scratching among those who must decipher our meaning. Unfortunately, the same can be said of what we receive from some of our entrepreneurial clients, particularly in a Google-enabled universe where finding examples of certain documents or language is so easy. These clients also have the quite excellent excuse that their focus is economic activity, not the nuances of language.

It’s not a silver bullet, but most of us would benefit from reading from time to time this book, known affectionately by English professors across the country simply as “Strunk & White.”  Here are the answers to questions that bedevil all writers of American English—including questions regarding picky but important little details such as, Do you add an additional “s” after the apostrophe when writing the plural possessive of a singular noun ending in “s”? ₂

The reader of this short (and oddly entertaining) book, ranked by Time magazine in 2011 as one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923, will be rewarded with the answers to dozens of similar questions. My well-worn version dates back to 1972.  Newer editions are available, but I’ll stick with this old friend for now.


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₁That said, Beowulf is a pretty decent story; check out either the 2007 Robert Zemeckis film  or, for those who really want to do a deep dive, Seamus Heaney's 2000 translation.  

₂The answer is yes, even though it looks funny in a phrase like “Elvis’s peanut butter and banana sandwich.”






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