March 27, 2009

Elements of Style Celebrates 50 Years

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This April, the famed collaborative work of two Cornell alumni, William Strunk Jr., grad, 1896, and English professor, and E.B. White ’21, The Elements of Style celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Known today as a universal guide in stylistic and grammatical writing for students, The Elements of Style’s history connects two generations of Cornellians.
Originally written in 1918 by Strunk, this “little book,” as White constantly referred to it, laid down the foundation for efficacious writing.
Strunk was able to consolidate the handbook by narrowing down the principles of writing to only eight basic rules of usage, 10 principles of composition and “a few matters of form,” according
The work left a noted impression upon Strunk’s student, White, the famed author of Charlotte’s Web, during his undergraduate years. White was also editor in chief of The Sun as a student at Cornell.
White once described Strunk’s prescriptive manual as a “43-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy and brevity in the use of English.”
In 1959, White was presented with an opportunity to continue his mentor’s legacy after Strunk had died in 1946. White was commissioned by MacMillan and Company to edit The Elements of Style for a second edition to be published that same year.
White modernized Strunk’s work and expanded The Elements of Style’s readership as the new edition sold over two million copies. Over the course of 40 years and multiple new editions, the little book sold over 10 million copies.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Elaine Engst, director of Cornell’s division of rare and manuscript collections, commented upon the growing universality of the work.
“It’s ubiquitous. There have always been writing guides, but this is the one that left its mark,” Engst said.
Engst continued by saying that a factor that attributed to the fame of this work was that the book was also “inexpensive and accessible and has stayed true to Strunk’s original focus on brevity and clarity.”
For Cornell students, especially freshmen, a familiarity with the text in their high school careers has enabled them to hone their writing skills at the college level.
Matt Rosenthal ’12 said, “I read this text as a required reading my junior year in high school. But I found that the principles that Strunk and White recognize as fundamental principles remained the foundation to successful writing at the college level.”
Jonathan Senchyne, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of English, offered his thoughts on the significance of this text as both a graduate student and a professor of freshman writing seminars at Cornell.
“Generations of literature and composition students can probably name two staple texts from their introductory courses, and they both developed out of course materials in the Cornell English department. They are, of course, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and M.H. Abrams’s Norton Anthology of English Literature, Senchyne stated in an e-mail.
“Strunk’s guidelines, like the famous ‘omit needless words,’ combined the classical tradition of rhetorical instruction with the aesthetic tastes of the early twentieth century to meet the needs of instruction in the evolving disciplinary English.”
Senchyne criticized new composition books and style guides, asserting that they are “issued annually by publishers who count on ever fancier editions to pad the bottom line.”
Senchyne explained the fact that “the Elements of Style has been substantially the same for a half-century speaks not only to its quality, but also to its role as shaper of the very disciplines of college and professional writing.”