Thursday is the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. The “little book” (as Strunk called it) is a popular guide to writing clearly and concisely, deemed required reading by many professors and editors to students and reporters, respectively.
To mark the anniversary, a leatherbound edition of the book’s most recent edition (the fourth, first published in 1999) is now available for $19.95. The paperback edition can still be purchased for half that price.
The original version of the book was written by Strunk in 1918, but was dramatically revised by White in 1959. (White was a student of Strunk at Cornell; he is best remembered for writing the classic children’s book Charlotte’s Web.)
Personally, I don’t think the book is worth the hype, but not every writer needs it. I own a copy of the 1999 edition, given to me as a Christmas gift by a former editor who, incidentally, lost his job in the same wave of newsroom layoffs that put me in the unemployment line. The editor wasn’t trying to say I specifically needed the book — he gave The Elements of Style to everyone in the newsroom that year — and, truth be told, the spine of my copy is hardly cracked because I didn’t need it. (I’m not bragging about that as much as stating a fact; any of my former editors would say I regularly filed clean copy that required minimal editing.) I always found The Associated Press Stylebook and Webster’s Desk Dictionary more useful. But you would be surprised to learn (or perhaps you wouldn’t) how many reporters would benefit greatly from using any of those three books but don’t take the time or care in their work to improve their writing by doing so. (Which makes it easier for errors to creep into newspapers, but I digress …)
Despite my criticism of The Elements of Style, I still note the book’s anniversary because it is considered an important style manual for writers. Sadly, with the rapid increase in bad spelling and grammar coinciding with increased use of e-mail, text messages, Twitter and the like, I fear our society is going to need a lot more than a 50-year-old book (last revised a decade ago) to learn how to write correctly.