The Elements of Style: musings on an old classic

| February 1, 2012

As I was checking in items from the book drop recently I noticed that someone had returned my favorite grammar book, if one can have only one favorite grammar book: The Elements of Style.  The book is slim and unassuming (especially the version of the book we have here, which  looks like this):

The Elements of Style is more a style guide than an extensive set of grammar rules; it’s a clear and concise guide to writing well, and helpful to a wide range of writers (professional and beginners alike). Roger Angell, who wrote the introduction to the 2005 edition, says, “How often I have turned to [these rules], in the book or in my mind, while trying to start or unblock or revise some piece of my own writing! They help–they really do. They work. They are the way.” If that strikes you as an unusually robust recommendation, consider E.B. White’s own introduction to the 1979 edition (which he revised and edited from its original version, written by White’s mentor William Strunk Jr.), in which he claims, “In its original form, it was a forty-three page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English. Today, fifty-two years later, its vigor is unimpaired, and for sheer pith I think it probably sets a record that is not likely to be broken.” White revised the text in his 1979 edition to include feminine pronouns in his examples, and references to technology unavailable at the time of its first printing.  But the most exciting addition to the newest edition, published in 2005, is the work of painter/illustrator/writer Maira Kalman.

Kalman, whose illustrations often grace the covers of New Yorker magazine, and whose publications include both children’s and adult art books, tends to offer a quirky take on every situation she paints.  She particularly excels at painting scenes that accentuate an accompanying narrative, as she does in my favorite book of hers, The Principals of Uncertainty.  Most recently, she illustrated Michael Pollen’s book, Food. In The Elements of Style, her illustration elevate Strunk’s already quirky example sentences into an artform–something I don’t tend to expect when reading a book of grammar rules.  For example:

The caption under the illustration of the dog, in case you can’t read it, is “Well, Susan, this is a fine mess you are in.”  The sentence is an example showing that “a name or a title in direct address is parenthetic,” and exists under the general rule, “Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.” It’s a handy rule, made visual by Kalman’s sad yet sweet looking dog.

Further resources:

Call number of The Elements of Style, published in 1999: PE1408 .S772 1999

PS: note that this book is checked out but that sitting next to this one on the shelf(if it were on the shelf) are earlier versions dating from previous years)

OR: read it as an E-Book:

Sadly, neither TC nor Columbia has the illustrated version, but for a sneak peak, check out:
Maira Kalman’s website.