Some rules are bent, others are broken. Not knowing the rules is no excuse.
Strunk writes about the laws which govern our language.
“This book is intended for use in English courses in which the practice of composition is combined with the study of literature. It aims to give in a brief space the principal requirements of plain English style. It aims to lighten the task of instructor and student by concentrating attention (in Chapters II and III) on a few essentials, the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated. The numbers of the sections may be used as references in correcting manuscript.
“The book covers only a small portion of the field of English style, but the experience of its writer has been that once past the essentials, students profit most by individual instruction based on the problems of their own work, and that each instructor has his own body of theory, which he prefers to that offered by any textbook.
“It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.”
(From the Introduction)
There must be some structure to language. We must agree on some aspects of it, and creating rules and definitions around those mutual agreements helps to foster intelligibility throughout the language.
Likewise, this agreement to abide by these rules means that we can teach communication. This does not mean only in the case of children, but it certainly simplifies it for them. This also means that writers can continue to learn, to interact, and to write understandably and not wastefully.
We take these rules from traditions, but also from common sense. Strunk’s rulings on word use (especially amongst words with similar meanings) are based on the root words, and the original meanings. Strunk means to separate these similar words so that instead of synonyms, we have two similar but precise words.
This also prevents confusion, as various English dialects may take these words in different ways, but all share the same roots.
However, language changes constantly, so regulating it and placing rules on it is difficult. Many feel that it stifles creativity, or that it places hegemonic power in the hands of the elite.
The work of Strunk is not to close off language, nor to set it absolutely free, but to make a linguistic analysis of its forms, meanings and changes into one that the layman can appreciate. The work is somewhat dated by today’s standards, but this actually provides the perfect example for many of the book’s observations on the mutability of language.
It likewise supports the assertion that language may change, but not as much as you might think. Strunk is just as useful to an author today as it was when it was compiled.
It is light-hearted and often humorous, and presents language and communication in a thoughtful way. Any writer should come away from this book with a new respect for language, and with a keener eye for seeing their own writing.
For anyone who wants to write and communicate precisely, to enable their readers to get the most out of their writing, this book is a must.
Every author needs a copy on their bookshelf for study and re-study.
Get Your Copy Now.
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cover photo credit: Pete O’Shea
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