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In praise of good style and clear writing


(Editor's note: The Cornell Chronicle follows punctuation as laid out in the Associated Press Stylebook. However, since

the following essay discusses "The Elements of Style," it appropriately adheres to that recommended punctuation.)

I learned many useful skills while a student at a small liberal arts college in the upper Midwest, but the one I value most originated at Cornell. In a class on "Advanced Rhetoric," the campus curmudgeon required students to acquire a copy of the small manual The Elements of Style and to read, re-read, and apply the precepts found within it. The book, first written by Cornell Ph.D. and professor William Strunk Jr. and later edited and expanded by his student E.B. White (and hence known as "Strunk and White"), became our bible. We might argue late into the night about whether the accounts in the different Gospels revealed infallible truth or contradicted each other, but there was no arguing with Strunk and White.

In clear, concise, and compelling prose, Strunk and White laid down the law. Need to know how to form the possessive of a name ending in "s"? Add "'s," regardless of the final consonant. Uncertain whether a comma needs to follow the word "concise" in the sentence that starts this paragraph? See Rule 2, which endorses the use of serial comma (sometimes also called an Oxford comma), as opposed to the common practice in many journalistic stylebooks of dropping the comma to save one printed character on the page. As Jonathan Yardley, book critic for the Washington Post, noted in a column praising The Elements of Style: "Newspaper 'style' consists mainly of ungrammatical, unlovely attempts to compress as much information as possible into as little space as possible." Strunk and White knew that the purpose of good style was not to save space, but to enhance comprehension.

"Omit needless words!" they write (Rule 17), and then continue with a command that still stirs my heart:

  • Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Imagine how much more productive (and pleasurable) reading at Cornell would be if every written word played an essential role in conveying meaning.

In 2004, someone wrote to "Dear Uncle Ezra" to ask if there is on campus a monument to Strunk. There are at least four Facebook groups for fans of The Elements of Style, and even one band. The Cornell University Library will be celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the book's publication through a series of exhibits and lectures. Yet there is nothing that permanently recognizes the enduring accomplishment of these two famous Cornellians.

Let us use the fiftieth anniversary of the first publication of The Elements of Style to rectify this oversight, and in a manner that the authors would find meaningful. I understand that University Communications follows the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style rather than The Elements of Style. They should as well publicly embrace as the university's basic stylebook the manual created at Cornell. The other stylebooks should only be used when there is not an applicable rule in The Elements of Style. Omitting all needless words from university publications will soon save a forest while at the same time honoring two of the most illustrious Cornellians. The best way to show appreciation for the authors of "the little book" is to live by its precepts.

Peter Hirtle is Cornell University Library's chief intellectual property officer.