In today’s post, we’re going to take a look at two go-to books which should grace every reference shelf. While dictionaries are mandatory, we should also write with an eye toward style and of course, grammar.
When I began writing as a hobby, then later for school, I had a brown leather and gold reference set – dictionary, thesaurus, basic grammar elements, The fourth edition of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is an 85-page powerhouse of timeless advice on how to write well. If you’re looking for authenticity, well then, let me expand on the names – E.B. White and William Strunk, Jr. More than likely you’re familiar with the first name and his work, currently listed in the Top 40 American Great Reads, Charlotte’s Web.
While I certainly chose the book for its vibe of how to write well, it is also a showpiece to me of the other writing White accomplished – think The New Yorker. And who better to write the forward than his stepson, Roger Angell? Especially, since it was E.B., who wrote the introduction to the 1979 edition. Why? William Strunk, Jr. was his professor at Cornell University and this is where E.B. White first spied the slim volume which now boasts his name in its third and fourth incarnations. The original book was even shorter at only 43 pages!
Consider this: the Declaration of Independence is a one-page document and sets down all the whys and wherefores of our forefathers ideas of how they wanted to run this country. The First Edition of The Elements of Style was 43 pages and the fourth is now 85 pages getting to the basics of writing well. And yet, somewhere I read – a few years ago – the rules and regulations on importing lettuce was 1100 pages (maybe it’s been cut since then, but…) So, 1 page to run a country; 43-85 pages on how to write well in the tangled rhetoric of the English language; and 1100 pages on the import regulations on a head of lettuce.
I’m going to step outside my comfort zone here a little bit and in today’s vernacular and text speak to write SMH. Translated: Shaking My Head. Eye roll and onward!
If you’ve been following our August Book Reviews this week, you’ll know I’ve taken to opening the book near the middle and giving the first two lines. And today’s post is no different.
“….all, that what follows is summary, and then waste no words in repeating the notification. In notebooks, in newspapers, in handbooks of literature, summaries of one kind or another may be indispensable, and for children in primary schools retelling a story in their own words is a useful exercise.”
~ page 32, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style
Part of a writing style involves good grammar. Today, there are so many places to turn online from MSWord grammar and spellchecker to Grammarly, finding the best source for you can be overwhelming.
But, if you want to just pull something from your bookshelf and if grammar is just not your thing, then I recommend a flip through the pages of Patricia T. O’Connor’s Woe is I – The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.
I discovered Ms. O’Connor’s book a few years ago and wished I’d had it when I first began teaching English abroad. If you’ve never gone through the process of teaching English, my first foray into teaching began before my TEFL-certification course. After the basic application information, the next step was an intensive grammar review. Which was disheartening, to say the least.
I remember turning to my roommate at the time and exclaiming, “I don’t know why it’s wrong. I just know it’s wrong.” But, that approach would have gotten me nowhere had I taught that way in my lessons. So, for the quintessential child still asking “Why?” The Grammarphobe’s Guide was the answer to my prayers.
At 250 pages, the updated and third edition of Woe is I, has been a lifesaver as years later and in my own writing, I struggle to remember certain grammar elements. Sometimes, I think quotation marks, for example, should be done one way, but the book tells me different. It’s kind of like being too close to something.
Ever looked down at your writing and a word as simple as “the” looks misspelled or a run-on sentence has suddenly become a comma burying ground (read: way too many. better just to make two sentences)? Good, I’m not the only one!
In keeping with our middle of the book call-out, this little tidbit comes from page 123.
“The whole point of putting only in its place is to make yourself understood […]. But, in informal writing and conversation, if no one’s likely to mistake your meaning it’s fine to put only where it seems most natural – usually in front of the verb: I’m only saying this once.”
We’ve all had those moments where we wish someone would just tell us in plain English the best way to write English. Et voila! No more Woe is I when it comes to getting my grammar right. Add to that, timeless advice on elements of style, and together you’ve got a winning combination for writing at your best.