Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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The Elements of Style

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After Eats, Shoots & Leaves disappointed me on my search for a book on punctuation, I was pointed to the American classic The Elements of Style. It turns out to be an excellent book which is free of posing and gets straight to the facts. It give strictly formulated rules without leaving you with the feeling that you are stupid or have to stick to them at all costs. Advice for grown-ups.

Even better, the sections on punctuation are just a small part of the hundred page book. The rest is full of advice on building sentences, composition and general writing style, along with a list of frequently mis-used words to keep in mind. In fact - as can be easily seen on these pages - there is much more information in that small book than I could remember or even adopt in one go.

I particularly like the book’s tone. Its non-pretentiousness is reassuring, the points it makes usually come with both an explantation and examples. These seem to be elements of writing that are frequently forgotten on the internet: How often have read web pages on a topic which claim some fact and stop right there rather than giving arguments for (and possibly against) it and throwing in a few examples.

The end of chapter V, An Approach to Style, is particularly good, and doesn’t just contain a few amusing remarks like:

Today, the language of advertising enjoys an enormous circulation. With its deliberate infractions on grammatical rules and its crossbreeding of the parts of speech, it profoundly influences the tongues and pens of children and adults. Your new kitchen range is so revolutionary it obsoletes all other ranges. Your counter top is beautiful because it is accessorized with gold-plated faucets. […]

Advertisers are quite understandably interested in what they call “attention getting.” The man photographed must have lost an eye or grown a pink beard, or he must have three arms or be sitting wrong-end-to on a horse. This technique is proper in its place, which is the world of selling, but the young writer had best not adopt the device of mutilation on ordinary composition, whose purpose is to engage, not paralyze, the reader’s senses.


Another segment of society that has constructed a language of its own is business. People in business say that toner cartridges are in short supply, that they have updated the next shipment of these cartridges, and that they will finalize their recommendations at the next meeting of the board. They are speaking a language familiar and dear to them. Its portentous nouns and verbs invest ordinary events with high adventure; executives walk among toner cartridges, caparisoned like knights. We should tolerate them—every person of spirit want to ride a white horse. The only question is whether business vocabulary is helpful to ordinary prose.

And so forth. I’d love to quote more, because great points are made succinctly. But it’s not clear to me how much you can quote for illustrative purposes if you are not amazon.com. These two short snippets alone manage to explain a great part of my frustration with reading. Most of the texts we get to see are advertising or business-talk poorly rephrased for public consumption. That is, they are not written with the benefit of the reader in mind.

I am sure you can write great texts without The Elements of Style, but I am equally sure that many, if not most, texts would be better if they were written with the book in mind.

November 24, 2007, 11:13

Tagged as book, elements of style, writing.


Comment by Scott: User icon

My favorite bit of the book is the entry for “flammable” in the section on commonly misused words and phrases.

November 24, 2007, 21:25

Comment by g: User icon

Eats shoots and leaves is a book about a conversation on punctuation. The Elements of Style is an archaic book that is fine if one were to believe the English language is a static monolithic entity. Now, the Chicago Manual of Style is something else. And since it invokes American English we can all feel at home, because that’s the only English that matters.

November 25, 2007, 0:51

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