A half-century of warfare against the split infinitive, the misplaced modifier, the obfuscation of plain language, and even the gratuitous use of a serial comma was recognized earlier this month as various media outlets celebrated the 50th anniversary of Strunk and White, the venerable writing guide that has been a resource for countless students and the bane of many more. The book, of course, never had that title at all; it is instead The Elements of Style, but the names of its authors William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White eventually became the popular name for the work itself by a process of metonymy (even the mention of which in this note betrays Strunk and White’s injunction against “the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute”).
This little book (the original was less than 50 pages) has sold more than ten million copies in its various editions over the years and has had a significant impact on American culture, in part because so many Americans memorized its rules or remember the dog-eared copy atop their desks. It was adapted for ballet in 1981, according to White’s granddaughter, and wunderkind composer and Philip Glass protégé Nico Muhly has even written a song cycle based on the book. It premiered in 2005 at the New York Public Library and featured such surreal moments as a tenor singing “Do not use a hyphen between words that can be better written as one word.” That, of course, is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which we will not put.
Jim Keane, S.J.