The Great Law of Writing

Strunk and White are famous for having said, “Omit needless words.”

This is a marvelous piece of melliflous advice and counsel. And if it were possible to understand it, I would even recommend it to others.

The only problem is that only the great masters of the craft of writing can possibly know which words are needful and which needless. Or is it, “are needless,”?

I think I know where Strunk learned this counsel:

from his mother.

He wanted a cookie after dinner. She said, “You don’t need one.”

He said, “I want a coke.” She said, “You don’t need one.”

He said, “I want to go skating with my friends.” She said, “You don’t need two.”

This confused him profoundly.  “Two what?” He thought. But he didn’t ask her to clarify because he wasn’t even sure he had spelled it right, and besides, maybe he didn’t need to know. Or maybe he had three, so he didn’t get the point.

In any case, he didn’t ask. So for the rest of his life, this phrase rolled around in his mind, compelling endless thought on how little one could possibly get by without having.

Or saying.

So, as Peter Wood suggests in this, um, needful little article, Strunk bought into the anti-Victorian spartan aesthetic of the modernist. He wrote a book that has told Americans how to write for nearly 100 years now.

In this book Strunk taught Americans how to think without metaphors, to produce writing that is as clear, says Peter Wood, as the tracks of the camel in a desert.

If only Strunk had let his curiosity get the better of him, to arouse just a little cheekiness, to say to his mother, with utmost respect, “Need it for what, dear mother?”

Read the article, if you want to defend Strunk and White or if you want to gather weapons to slay them – or maybe just spider silk to catch them in their own web.

Get it?

Maybe I shouldn’t have asked that.

Question.

Maybe.

Like or as?

When I was a child, my creative writing teacher (the immortal Mrs. Holm) mentioned a then current cigarette commercial that used the tag line, “Winston takes good, like a cigarette should. So what do you want, good grammar or good taste?”

I had a way of being distracted from the point by the wonder of the sounds when I was a kid, so I never got this lesson. But in the last 40 years radical relativism has so overthrown human communication that the word like has become an un-informed, illiterate metaphysical confession from those who yearn to live in the shadow of the beat writers and the hippies. Like, you know what I mean, man?

But dude, we need to attend to our words. They, like, matter. So recently, being reminded of that commercial and disappointing myself with my inability to explain it, I decided to figure it out. Failing that, I looked it up in Strunk and White.

Did you know that there is a significant difference between like and as? I was surprised to see how simple it is: like is used before nouns and pronouns, and as is used before phrases and clauses.

Not, per Strunk and White, “We spent our evening like in the old days,” but, “We spent our evening as in the old days.”

Then I saw it! No doubt the genesis of the Winston commercial, there in Strunk and White!

Not, “Chloe smells good like a baby should,” but, Chloe smells good as a baby should.”

Now the radical relativists want us to believe that language is determined entirely by usage or conventions. They want us to believe that when something is popular, it must be right. I have argued a philosophical case against this position in an article that will be published in The Journal, the magazine of the Society for Classical Learning. Strunk and White give a practical response (page 51 in the fourth edition):

An expression sometimes merely enjoys a vogue, much as an article of apparel does. Like has long been widely musused by the illiterate; lately it has been taken up by the knowing and the well-informed, who find it catchy, or liberating, and who use it as though they were slumming. If every word or device that achieved currency were immediately authenticated, simply on the ground of popularity, the language would be as chaotic as a ball game with no foul lines.