I doubt I’m the only person who has a collection of books on grammar and word usage, and I certainly hope I’m not the only one who reads them for pleasure. There are a huge number out there and, of course, some are better than others. Some are more accessible, some are more entertaining, some are dry, some are vivid . . . and then some are the kinds of tomes you prop under a two-year old so they can reach the kitchen table. Ultimately, though, the book I keep coming back to–and the only user’s guide I keep within finger’s reach at my desk–is The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.
It’s been a classic for so long. Literally generations have read through this book. It’s hard to mentally separate the authors’ names. In fact, the book is actually a 1959 revision by E.B. White of William Strunk’s 1918 original. It’s even been parodied, in 2007’s Spunk and Bite by Arthur Plotnik, and how often does a grammar book get that distinction?
I think that the reason this one is such a classic is because the writing is perfectly clear, the advice is solid, and it’s easy to find what you need. The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, is even more authoritative, but it’s huge and filled with almost too much detail. Lynne Truss’s Eat, Shoots, and Leaves and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird are both wonderful books that are both informative and entertaining, but not quite so useful as reference books.
Now, Strunk and White (as it’s commonly called) is quite strict about some of its rules: don’t end sentences with a preposition, never start one with a conjunction, don’t split an infinitive. All rules (or suggestions) which common usage mostly lets slip these days. (How many non-writers do you know who even know what an infinitive is?) Its reputation is almost stodgy. A long list of rules and commands by two old, old men, you might think . . . and then you open it and start to read.
Now, it’s not a “readable” book in the same, conversational way of Truss and Lamotts’ books, but the quality of the writing is superb. E.B. White stresses simplicity in your writing, the importance of keeping your sentences crisp and active, and even in his explanations about when to use “lie” or “lay,” you can absolutely see the point. Who among us wouldn’t want to write as cleanly and vividly as E.B. White?
Then, of course, there’s the old adage that you need to know the rules to be able to break them. This should sound familiar because it seems to be one of my favorite themes. A writer can play with these rules, though, just as e.e. cummings played with capitalization, or Kent Haruf plays with quotation marks around his dialogue. It’s not that they did not know the rules, it’s that they chose to ignore them for effect. As Mr. Strunk and Mr. White say, “Style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition, for, as an elderly practitioner once remarked, ‘Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.'”
And that’s the point. Strunk and White is possibly the very best place you can learn the rules.