Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Le Mot Juste: The Value and Hazards of Precision

What’s the oldest book about writing that’s still on your shelves? Mine is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, the third edition (it's now in it's fourth). The cover price (new) of $2.75 gives you some idea of how long I’ve owned it.

“No book in shorter space, with fewer words, will help any writer more than this persistent little volume,” says The Boston Globe. “The work remains a nonpareil: direct, correct, and delightful,” says The New Yorker.

The Elements of Style is a model of precision. Will Strunk was E. B. White’s composition professor at Cornell way back in 1919. White put his professor’s advice to good use, becoming a successful author (to say the least) in his own right. In 1957, Macmillan commissioned White to revise Strunk’s edicts on style.

And edicts they are. “Professor Strunk was a positive man,” White says in his introduction to the third edition, putting a nice spin on it. “His book contains rules of grammar phrased as direct orders. In the main I have not tried to soften his commands, or modify his pronouncements, or remove the special objects of his scorn.”

When I taught college composition, I used The Elements of Style as a textbook. Among the advice I hoped it would impart to my students:

  • Use the active voice
  • Put statements in positive form
  • Use definite, specific, concrete language
  • Omit needless words
  • Avoid a succession of loose sentences
  • Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form
  • Keep related words together
  • Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end
  • Place yourself in the background
  • Write in a way that comes naturally
  • Work from a suitable design
  • Write with nouns and verbs
  • Revise and rewrite
  • Do not overwrite
  • Do not overstate
  • Avoid the use of qualifers
  • Do not explain too much
  • Make sure the reader knows who is speaking
  • Avoid fancy words
  • Be clear

Never mind that this list includes a few contradictions (as in “Do not overstate” but also “Put statements in positive form”). I took Strunk and White’s call to heart in my own writing, and though as a more mature writer I now qualify some of the advice (“Do not affect a breezy manner,” “Do not inject opinion,” “Use figures of speech sparingly,” “Prefer the standard to the offbeat”) in favor of strong voice, I’m still glad I learned first and foremost to write with precision.

Yes, rules are restrictive, but we must know language, the tool of our trade, and precision tempered with feeling yields beauty. Of course, it’s also possible to take precision a little too far. Known to deliberate for weeks over a single word, nineteenth-century novelist Gustave Flaubert championed le mot juste. I’ve read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in both English and French, and while it’s a finely crafted novel, there are several that have made a much bigger impression. An emphasis on micro-editing over larger concerns like character motivation and emotional resonance can yield micro-results.