This was a book set to me as recommended reading for my minor in creative writing at university. Being a good little student I decided to play along. It’s geared towards both creative and formal essay writing.
Of my own free will I never would have picked up any kind of grammar book even if you paid me. Maybe it’s because I hate the idea of writing as a formula, or perhaps it’s because the idea of writing being filled with rules is horrifying to me as it immediately makes it feel less fun. But I suppose…. *sigh* that it is kind of necessary. Maybe……
I’m also using this as part of the Eclectic Reader Challenge, partly because I need a non-fiction book and partly because it was a reason to push myself to actually read it all, lol. Yep that’s correct, I read the whole yawnsome thing from cover to cover! -_-
I’ve never reviewed anything non-fiction before, but I shall do my best. Wish me luck!
Blurb from Goodreads (as mine doesn’t have a blurb at all):
You know the authors’ names. You recognize the title. You’ve probably used this book yourself. This is The Elements of Style, the classic style manual, now in a fourth edition. A new Foreword by Roger Angell reminds readers that the advice of Strunk & White is as valuable today as when it was first offered.This book’s unique tone, wit and charm have conveyed the principles of English style to millions of readers. Use the fourth edition of “the little book” to make a big impact with writing.
According to the introduction this book was originally printed by William Strunk Jr. as a little 43 page guide to help his students. E.B White just so happened to be one of those students, and many years later he was asked to revise it. As a big practitioner of the book he accepted, updating it as well as adding a few extra pearls of wisdom and so TA DA, we have The Elements of Style 4th edition.
The book has five main sections: Elementary Rules of Usage – A fancy way of saying general writing rules. Elementary Principles of Composition e.g use an active voice, omit needless words, avoid lose sentences etc. A Few Matters of Form – A small section on exclamation marks, hyphen’s and quotation mark rules. Words and Expressions Commonly Misused – Such as effect vs affect and farther vs further and finally An Approach to Style – A more subjective look at writing with a few helpful hints such as don’t overwrite, overstate or explain too much.
The first thing I noticed about this book is that it’s not for beginners – of which I am one. It uses a lot of terms and expects you to understand them, and to me they sounded like French, and let me tell you I suck at French. Some of it I managed to decode while other sections led to extreme pen tapping and angry sighing. Because of this, it’s usefulness was limited to me personally. After stating a fact or rule in this book there was always an example, but I often found that the example was not explained enough in order for me to fully grasp the concepts. Problematic oui? (One of the only French words I know, apart from bibliothéque – library :P)
However The Elements of Style does still hold useful advice and in some ways I can see this book becoming a useful companion and reference guide. The main message it preaches is clarity and precision. Aka, you shouldn’t say in five words what you can say in one. I think this was important for me to hear as I tend to overwrite and say things the long way round – I am a big fan of phrases like ‘the fact that’ and ‘the question as to which/whether’ because I like the way they roll off the tongue and I always felt they made me sound, I don’t know smarter? But when it comes down to it, these are excess words that I don’t need. Sure, in some cases it’s my choice (like on my blog, because I make the rules mwuhuhuu!) but if I’m writing an academic essay with a word limit it’s a waste of words, something I hadn’t really realized until now.
There are also a lot of ‘rules’ that are common sense which made me feel a lot better about my own writing, because I do a lot of it automatically already! However there are other rules in here that I didn’t even know existed which was quite illuminating. I wouldn’t have thought/known these for instance:
‘When a word must be divided at the end of a line, consult a dictionary to learn syllables be-
tween which division should be made.’ – p. 38
I usually just split the line wherever I wanted!
I also thought this was interesting, it makes a lot of sense but I had never really consciously considered it before, it has so much more impact simply by switching the words around!
‘The proper place in the sentence for the word or group of words that the writer desires to make the most prominent is usually the end.’
e.g ‘Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways’ made better by ‘Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude’ – p. 32.
One of the criticisms I have of this book though, is that I didn’t necessarily always agree with what it was saying, even when it was in the section that was supposedly the law and not up for discussion. The authors statement to ‘Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious the coy and the cute’ for instance seemed a little rash and also an overstatement. Surely it depends on the context? That would be correct if you were writing an essay, but what about if you were writing chick lit? Surely that is a genre that relies on the coy and cute. Equally if you are trying to portray an arrogant or pretentious character, wouldn’t that be the exact type of language you would want to use? I think I know what the author was trying to get at, but it is not explained in a very clear way.
The other issue I have is that I don’t really like the writing style used in this book – ironic I know, seeing as it’s a book on how to write well! Of course there’s nothing technically wrong with it, but it is also devoid of any sort of feeling or interest. I know, I know it’s non-fiction but still, that doesn’t mean that it has to be boring! I just didn’t like the narrative voice, even though it was minimal. There was this horrible smugness to it all and I could just picture this stuck up writer with a superiority complex creating this book while chuckling with glee at his own intelligence. Essh. Of course, the two writers both have vast experience in the area of writing with their own theories and preferences, but no matter how much a person knows, I just can’t stand people that think they’re superior, even if they are. It’s one of my personal pet hates. How about a grammar book with pretty colours and enthusiastic writing with authors sharing their love for the topic and acting as your personal cheerleader? No? Okay then, I guess that would be too enjoyable…
I had never thought about reading a writing help book before because well, everyone has their own views on writing. While some points are facts that can’t be denied a lot of it at the end of the day is just opinion. However this book straddles the line between the two reasonably well and makes it clear which sections are hard fact or personal preference. This is the first grammar book I have read, so I don’t really have anything to compare it to but I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in writing, either for personal reasons or as a potential career. I would not however, recommend it for beginners because some of the terminology is confusing and you are expected to understand it. As a beginner myself I managed to traverse it with difficulty, but I’m sure there are better books to start with!
I will leave you with a quote that I think sums up the books message pretty well :):
‘Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.’ – xv/xvi
Writing Style: 3/5
Entertainment: 1/5 (Sorry guys, grammar doesn’t float my boat.)
Would I recommend this book? Yes, definitely if you have a tendency to overwrite! But in terms of teaching specifics of grammar there are probably better books out there.
P.S. I got my first short story back and I got a 2:1! YAY. 😀 The marker said the grade was pulled down a lot by my punctuation though, looks like this book didn’t help at all in that respect! Take of that what you will. 😉
Book Cover: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/33514.The_Elements_of_Style