March 26, 2009

Omit needless words: Strunk and White's classic, 'The Elements of Style,' turns 50

Grammarians rejoice! The classic little book "The Elements of Style" -- the English classroom staple that urges omitting needless words, explains subject-verb agreement and savors the active voice -- turns 50. The story behind it began at Cornell University.

In a 1957 New Yorker column, writer E.B. White (Cornell Class of 1921) praised "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk Jr., his former Cornell English professor, as "an attempt to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin."

Further, he described the 43-page treatise, first published in 1918, as a "case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English." White's endorsement of "The Elements of Style" quickly led his publisher, Macmillan, to ask White to update and expand Strunk's terse primer on grammar and usage.

Published April 16, 1959, Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" went on to win critical acclaim and total sales of more than 10 million copies. The tome proved so popular, that it earned a nickname "Strunk and White." In August 1959, the book appeared on The New York Times best-seller list along with another Cornell professor's book, "Lolita," by Vladimir Nabokov. Strunk and White peaked at No. 3.

New editions followed in 1972, 1979 and 1999; an illustrated edition was issued in 2005, and a 50th anniversary edition appears this month, published by Pearson Education Inc.

Teacher and book exerted a profound influence on White, author of the children's classics "Charlotte's Web" and "Stuart Little" and essayist for the New Yorker for six decades.

After earning his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1896, Strunk taught at the university for his entire career, from 1899 to 1937. He first published his book privately for use in his own English classes. Among Strunk's legendary commandments: "Omit needless words!"; "Do not break sentences in two"; and "Use the active voice."

"He was a memorable man, friendly and funny," White wrote of Strunk in a 1957 New Yorker column. "Under the remembered sting of his kindly lash, I have been trying to omit needless words since 1919," he wrote, adding in his introduction that the book "still seems to maintain its original poise, standing in a drafty time, erect, resolute and assured."

White gave his papers to Cornell during his lifetime and more came after his death in 1985. The publisher's pitch letter to White (which he could not resist editing) as well as subsequent correspondence is in the library's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections' E.B. White Collection. It includes Strunk's first edition and thousands of letters. White's papers bear the rigorous editing he imposed on his own work. In minute detail, letters cover typesetting, royalties and pricing the book (hardcover, $2.50; paperback, $1).

In one letter, White attested that Strunk took brevity seriously. Because he was concise, his lectures were very short -- so he would repeat himself three times.

"The manuscripts let you see White's writing process," said University Archivist Elaine Engst. "The most impressive White manuscript we have is 'Charlotte's Web,' because the first draft is completely different from the finished book. What's wonderful about looking at his drafts is that you see that even for somebody who was pretty close to a perfect writer, how much work went into his books: a ton of it.

"People felt they knew White," said Engst of White's thousands of correspondents. "They feel a very personal connection. He's somebody you would like to have known, and that comes through."

Cornell University Library will host a display including photographs, handwritten notes and White's typewriter in connection with the 50th anniversary of "The Elements of Style" in Olin Library from April 6 through Reunion June 4-7.