The Magazine

Meaning What?

Strunk and White for the postliterate set.

Jan 21, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 18 • By JIM SWIFT
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As someone new to journalism, I’ve acquired every book imaginable on style, grammar, and writing. On my shelf sit Words into Type, The Associated Press Stylebook, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. Even dusty old books I was forced to buy in college—like The Chicago Guide to Writing About Multivariate Analysis and Strunk and White’s Elements of Style—made the cut.

Of course, I haven’t actually read them, but I tell everyone that I plan to do so. They look good on my bookshelf and, more important, they make me look smart.

I mean to read them, really, but just haven’t found the time. That is, until I discovered this astonishing volume—a seminal work that no journalist has ever mentioned to me (not even my mom). If you want inspiration that will compel you to read the general rules for division of words, this is the book for you.

Early into The Elements of F*cking Style, I learned about my overreliance on parenthetic expressions between commas. Before reading this, I could tell you I knew what a parenthetical was, but couldn’t pick one out of a paragraph if you asked me to. Now I can spot them, and I know their stylistic importance, with the aid of helpful anecdotes. For example:

Now it is important to realize that if you’re going to use commas in this way, they have to come in pairs. The pair of commas is like deciding whether to wear a tie to a meeting—if you go with the tie, you have to wear a jacket as well or you’ll look like a tool. Same goes with commas.

In my daily duties here at The Weekly Standard I most certainly do not want to “look like a tool.” Now I can use fancy terms such as “non-restrictive clause” when opining about an author’s attempt to defeat James Joyce for the distinction of writing the longest sentence in the English language.

To be sure, this is not a book for readers who might have an aversion to foul language or references to drugs and sex. Its 96 pages are replete with hilarious references, but don’t let that discourage you—Chris Baker and Jacob Hansen have ensured that naughty words serve the noble purpose of promoting good grammar. We’re encouraged to think of a colon, for example, as “a fence between neighbors in a trailer park in the South,” because it tells you what follows is “closely related to the preceding clause. .  .  . Real close.” The dash—a favorite of Weekly Standard writers—“implies a separation more forceful than a comma, and more relaxed than a colon” and “is more useful than a f*cking Swiss Army Knife.”

With apologies to Fr. Bernard Streicher, S.J., general editor of Correct Writing 1, had my high school used Elements as an English text instead of Correct Writing 1, the chapter on pronouns (“Pronouns are a real bitch”) probably would have encouraged me to know more about them. 

Section II, “On Writing Like an Adult,” provides some prescient advice to this, or any, young writer: namely, that “the idea behind choosing a stylistic structure is not the same as that behind choosing a style.” I’m still wet behind the ears about this whole writing thing, but Elements helped me realize that I haven’t yet picked a style. I expect that picking a style is like signing a letter of intent to play college football, so I might wait a bit.

But more important than style, Elements teaches the fundamentals, the structure of writing, as grammar nerds might call it. Baker and Hansen equate structure with a road trip, where your destination is the thesis. Everything in between is an “excursion” to things you’d like to see along the way, like the world’s largest ball of twine or the Exorcist steps in Georgetown. 

The authors also illuminate a basic directive that many writers only acknowledge in private: Listen to your editors. “An actual road trip, whose wasted hours can’t be retrieved,” differs from writing, say Baker and Hansen, since writing can “be salvaged after the fact by a proofreader’s keen eye.” Sage advice—especially for me, since I sit a few feet away from my editors. 

To some, of course, Elements may seem juvenile. Its humor comes straight from the gutter. Or the mind of a pubescent teenager, which might explain why I like it. So, if you’re in the market for a bestselling book on writing that has sold more copies than Harry Potter, buy Strunk and White. But if your humor is a bit off-color, and you seek entertainment and enlightenment, try this one.

Jim Swift is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.