Blog Your Blessings: 'Elements of Style'

I could hear myself sounding like I was in love with these men. I urged them to read their book, to follow their style, to trust everything they wrote. To believe they could change their lives forever by teaching them to write well.

I went on and on.

About E.B. White and the tiny masterpiece that bears his name alongside William Strunk's.

I was daring the kids I tutor for the SATs to get a copy of Elements of Style and trust it like they could never trust a living English teacher to teach them the basic rules of grammar, usage, style.

Strunk wrote the thing in 1919 to create a basic style sheet from which his students at Cornell University could learn to write clearly and therefore effectively. In 1957, White prepared this little book for publication by MacMillan. In his introduction, White lists the contents: "Seven rules of usage, eleven principles of composition, a few matters of form, and a list of words and expressions commonly misused--that was the sum and substance of Professor Strunk's work. Somewhat audaciously,...I added a chapter called 'An Approach to Style,' setting forth my own prejudices, my notions of error, my articles of faith [for those who] feel that English prose composition is not only a necessary skill but a sensible pursuit as well--a way to spend one's days."

Simple, short, sweet--and so unlike those dreadfully heavy books full of rules, exceptions, examples, exercises that boggle the mind until it feels hopeless.

I got away with this homily on usage on Thursday because I had endured a gruelling hour and a half of my students' grilling me on the various laws of grammar as we waded through the dreary practice SAT questions. To endure this inquisition, I kept my eye on the prize: the beauty and grace--call it power--of our best thoughts distilled into the finest words in the cleanest sentences we can imagine. It's about finding your best self and being that person.

Talk of Elements always brings me back to my sophomore year of high school, when Mr. Charles Phelps would hand out these little paperback books so that we could copy the rules into our notes and then practice them until we mastered them. Like the book, he made it manageable and easy, and this fact set him apart from all the confusing old ladies and their exquisite script and all their arrows, circles, and underlines that left me in a fit of despair on a daily basis in the years up to Mr. Phelps.

Mr. Phelps cracked the code for me at a critical time for me. My sophomore year was also the worst year of my life. That was the year my beloved grandmother succumbed to cancer after a painful struggle with the disease. I remember feeling my sorrow very deeply as she lay in her hospital bed. To alleviate my grief, I tried to write an essay to my gram. I did not. I finished the thing and then wrote "Dear Gram" at the top. My parents read it to her in her hospital bed. On the last occasion I saw that wonderful lady, she told me it was the most beautiful letter she had ever received.

Since that moment so many years ago, I have contemplated the difference between writing for oneself and writing for an audience, even an audience of one. There must always be someone else for whom we write. I believe it. If we don't have that person, we must find him or her. And we must say it the best way we can. We must.
Read the book.

It all comes down to subject, verb, object: I love you.

Thank you Messrs. Strunk, White, and Phelps.

Blog Your Blessings


  1. I had a Mr. Phelps too... but he was a science teacher in middle school. He was a really odd duck, but in his own way I guess he was for me a little of what your Mr. Phelps was for you.

  2. I could use a refresher course on punctuation, etc. I kind of get that from my Writer's critique group and from writing. We do write for others if only ourselves and to find ourselves-our unique voice. It's good we have teachers along the way to inspire us. Interesting blog.

  3. where ndo I find this little book,I need iy !

  4. It is true there must always be someone else, this must be why people blog and believe in God.

  5. I must translate this text, before to put another comment...
    See You later...

  6. The best rules are always simple. Easy as "pi"...

  7. They taught you well.
    Wonderfully articulated. You are now passing this on to others. You watch - one of them will write you that letter. One day.

    You are so right about audience. I always think I write for myself, but I'm not really. I must always have an audience in mind somewhere.

    I love thyme's comment - so true. It is as simple - and necessary - as that.

  8. This book is treated like a Bible on my book case. I think I'm on my fifth or sixth copy of it.

  9. Anonymous11:09 AM

    A wonderful and expressive link in an on-going literary commentary, you are a true teacher and writer!

  10. I had a whole bunch of those copies and used them with 4th graders when I was still teaching. My granddaughter who is now a teacher is using them now!

    I truly believe what you said here. You need to write to someone/for someone.

    Your letter to your grandmother touched my heart -- I, too, wrote a letter --it was to my Mom before she had a stroke and was in the hospital where she insisted on keeping "that letter" with her even tho all her belongings were sent home with my big sister who had taken her and her purse (for ID) to the hospital. I was touched to find out that my letter meant so much to her. She was my blessing and I told her so in writing!

    I have my blessing published but it is scheduled for tomorrow. late on today, I might re-schedule it for late tonight.

  11. Ah, yes, Strunk & White. The nuns didn't use Elements of Style but I did learn to write grammatically- correct sentences, thank goodness. I have a book on my shelf called "Spunk & Bite" by Adam Plotnik which is a take-off of S&W's "Elements." It suggests taking the road of the "offbeat" rather than sticking with the standard. But, Sandy, I do believe you need the standard before you can deviate from it. You've written a wonderful essay! :)

  12. Anonymous12:09 PM

    sandy, you and your entry reminds me of 2 writing professors (who are also editors of a local daily down here) i had in college. they also encouraged us to have strunk and white's "tiny masterpiece" with us all the time. i also like "the elements of style" bec it's quick but i get a lot from it, especially because i know i have to get better at english.

    you also just reminded me to look for it, for the tiny book. i know i will need it and i've honestly forgotten how helpful it was during my school days.

    thanks for reminding me! :D

    ps: i am truly happy for you, that you're loving writing for yourself. you seem very selfless in real life and i think you truly deserve to write for yourself. my writing teachers also encouraged us to do the same. :) and your grandmother must be really touched with the beautiful letter you wrote for her.

  13. "Elements of Style" is such a treasure. "Louis" doesn't understand why it isn't more widely used. "Louis" understands that language is a living thing, but with common useage today being what it is, "Louis" wonders if our tongue isn't terminally ill...

  14. I don't remember reading that book. Off to Barnes and Noble. Aren't grandmothers just the most wonderful people? I still miss both of mine.

  15. Coming back to comment on your comment to me.

    For daughter's Halloween costume many years ago when she was 4 years old, I made a tomato not a tornado! It has long since been recycled and I don't know where the photos are. . . she is in her 30's now! No tornados requested!

  16. Thanks for reminding me about writing...writing has been my deepest passion and yet my most elusive conquest. I told a friend and fellow writer in a letter yesterday that writing is the child I feed last. I don't know why. I am writing a book about life in Depression-era Alabama. It is mostly about my grandmother, but several other important women figure into the story. The task is so monumental, so important to me, I tend to lay it aside for other, easier tasks. I will, for instance, write a letter to my friend, instead of working on the book.

    I love your writing style, and the depth of your intuitiveness. I too have copies of these wonderful books. It's nice to be reminded to be at one's important work....

  17. I really loved this post. On my book shelf sits this book. Perhaps I will read it. Thank you.

  18. I've been always in search of inspirations so I can write even half-way the way you do, Mary. But they don't show up full view.
    I better get hold of that book.

    Your beloved Gram must be very happy reading you now.

  19. God bless Charlie Phelps.... As a fellow member of that class I can remember the words of wisdom that often flowed from that genius of a man.

  20. Anonymous7:30 AM

    Hi Sandy, I have a different book on my bookshelf, it is called ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves’ by Lynne Truss. It was first published in Britain in 2003 and is a rather amusing (to me at least) tirade about the improper use of grammar in the world around us.
    To illustrate the unfortunate consequences of poor grammar, this joke is on the back cover:
    "A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.
    'Why?' asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
    'I’m a panda,' he says, at the door. 'Look it up.'
    The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.
    'Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.'”
    I wish more people understood and used appropriate grammar and thought about who they are writing for, thanks for taking the time to teach this to a new generation.

  21. Anonymous7:37 AM

    You always seem to go so deep and from the heart.
    I think this book would definitely be good for my home schooled grandchildren.

  22. Leane,
    I know that book, too! It is a great read. So is the children's version of the thing. I was telling the students I tutor about that one, too. The importance of a comma...There's a lesson in itself.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  23. Anonymous9:31 AM

    Knowledge is power! Excellent blessing :)

  24. I keep kind of repeating myself... but there are few things more beautiful than a well turned phrase... and your love of words... be it thanks to your Mr. Phelps or the efforts of Messrs White and Strunk, is a lifelong and strong affair that I for one am glad you're sharing... perhaps becoming someone else's muse of the English language?

  25. And I believe it too: it's good to have an audience, even it's only a an audience of one. This is why I don't stress over lack of comments on my blogs as some people do. I see how many people read them through the use of Statcounter, and I like to feel I've uplifted someone, planted a good seed, or brought a smile to someone's day. And you do all of the above so very well.

  26. How wonderful that you were able to write this letter to your Gram … that your parents shared it with her … and that she acknowledged it (and you) in this manner. I so appreciate your reminder of this little book … one I shared with students over the years myself but eventually set aside for the likes of Natalie Golberg and others. Methinks I’ll revisit it sometime soon … just because. Thank you!
    Hugs and blessings,

  27. Anonymous8:42 PM

    Great post. It was a real delight when I first discovered Strunk's Elements of Style on-line a few years ago. It's nice to know it remains respected after so many years.

  28. One of the things I feel that set good authors apart from bad ones is their willingness to be brief. That's one of the things I like about Elements.

  29. I love the language and I love good teachers. That must be why this post of yours is drawing a tear or two.
    Without _Elements of Style_ and some excellent teachers in Chicago Public Schools who knew how to teach these elements, I'd never have become a translator, proofreader, and style editor here in Israel. Or a blogger!
    Thank you for reminding me of whom to thank.


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