Friday, April 17, 2009

Strunk and White

Who are Strunk and White and Why Should You Care?

Strunk, W. and White, E.B. (1979). The Elements of Style (3rd Ed.). NY: Macmillan just celebrated it’s 50th year anniversary. Why should you care? In my humble opinion, it is the best book on writing ever written. In honor of the anniversary, I present two of my favorite rules for your enjoyment:

From the chapter “An Approach to Style:”

16. Be clear.

Clarity is not the prize in writing, nor is it always the principal mark of a good style. There are occasions when obscurity serves a literary yearning, if not a literary purpose, and there are writers whose mien is more overcast than clear. But since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue. And although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one. Even to a writer who is being intentionally obscure or wild of tongue we can say, "Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!" Even to writers of market letters, telling us (but not telling us) which securities are promising, we can say, "Be cagey plainly! Be elliptical in a straightforward fashion!"

Clarity, clarity, clarity. When you become hopelessly mired in a sentence, it is best to start fresh; do not try to fight your way through against the terrible odds of syntax. Usually what is wrong is that the construction has become too involved at some point; the sentence needs to be broken apart and replaced by two or more shorter sentences.

Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram. Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity, and be clear! When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.

From the chapter Elementary Principles of Composition:

17. Omit needless words.

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 sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Many expressions in common use violate this principle.

the question as to whether / whether (the question whether)

there is no doubt but that / no doubt (doubtless)

used for fuel purposes / used for fuel

he is a man who / he

in a hasty manner / hastily

this is a subject that / this subject

Her story is a strange one. / Her story is strange.

the reason why is that / because

The fact that is an especially debilitating expression. It should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.

owing to the fact that / since (because)

in spite of the fact that / though (although)

call your attention to the fact that / remind you (notify you)

I was unaware of the fact that / I was unaware that (did not know)

the fact that he had not succeeded / his failure

the fact that I had arrived / my arrival

See also the words case, character, nature in Chapter IV. Who is, which was and the like are often superfluous.

His cousin, who is a member of the same firm / His cousin, a member of the same firm

Trafalgar, which was Nelson's last battle / Trafalgar, Nelson's last battle

As the active voice is more concise than the passive, and a positive statement more concise than a negative one, many of the examples given under Rules 14 and 15 illustrate this rule as well.

A common way to fall into wordiness is to present a single complex idea, step by step, in a series of sentences that might to advantage be combined into one.

Macbeth was very ambitious. This led him to wish to become king of Scotland. The witches told him that this wish of his would come true. The king of Scotland at this time was Duncan. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth murdered Duncan. He was thus enabled to succeed Duncan as king. (51 words)

Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth achieved his ambition and realized the prediction of the witches by murdering Duncan and becoming king of Scotland in his place. (26 words)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Professional communications: Entry 3

[This blog entry is out of order for what I originally intended, but I have been thinking about the topic lately]

Professional Communications

There are other written communications to focus on, other than scholarly, academic writing. Our school, and other schools of social work, are very concerned with instilling professional behavior in our students in internships, and also in the classroom and other academic settings. Here are some recent problems I have encountered:

1. E-mail communications: I have been getting a lot of e-mails lately with poor grammar, improper capitalization and short hand or "texting" language. Maybe I am an old fogey, but I think you should strive for a minimum of correct grammar, capitalization and clear sentences, especially for professional communications. You will need to learn this style of writing to get and keep a professional job.

2. E-mail addresses: If you send a professional e-mail from your personal e-mail address, what might the recipient think of an e-mail address that reads or or I have seen variations on all of these. They do not look good on a job application or resume, or to your professor.

3. Exams: though teachers generally have lesser grammatical standards for test answers than papers, try to write in full sentences, using proper punctuation and grammar.

4. Answering machine messages: if you are using an answering machine on a phone that may get professional calls, make sure the message is short, businesslike and clear. No music, cute messages, children giving part of the message, dogs barking, funny voices, etc...

I'll post more on this as it comes up!