Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Ben Franklin and William Strunk

It was on this day in 1731 that Ben Franklin founded the first circulating library, a forerunner to the now ubiquitous free public library. He started it as a way to help settle intellectual arguments among his group of Philadelphia friends, the Junto, a group of civic-minded individuals gathered together to discuss the important issues of their day.

Each of the 50 charter members bought an initial share into the company (40 shillings), which helped fund the buying of books, and then paid a smaller yearly fee (10 shillings) that went to buying more books and maintaining the library. In exchange, the members could borrow any of the books. Donations of books were gladly accepted.

They called their charter the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the next year, Franklin hired America's first librarian, Louis Timothee. At first, the books were stored at the librarian's house, but by the end of the decade, they were moved to the Pennsylvania State House, which is now known as Independence Hall.

It's the birthday of grammarian William Strunk Jr., born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1869). He was a professor at Cornell University for 46 years, and during that time, he created the "little book" known as The Elements of Style (1918) in order to make it easier to grade his students' composition papers.

Strunk's book included seven "rules of usage" and 11 "principles of composition." He advised, for example, "USE THE ACTIVE VOICE" and "PUT STATEMENTS IN POSITIVE FORM" and "OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS." He elaborated: "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."

Under this, he proceeded to give a table of bad examples and counterpart good examples. He lists an expression that is a violator of the conciseness principle: "There is no doubt but that." In its place, he recommends the word "doubtless." In that same section, he says, "In especial the expression the fact that should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs." In his table of bad usage and good usage, "owing to the fact that" is replaced with "because" and "in spite of the fact that" is replaced with "although."

He self-published the book, and for years, it was mostly only known around Cornell University in Ithaca. One of his students at Cornell in 1919 was E.B. White, who became an editor at The New Yorker magazine. White wrote an essay about Strunk's book for The New Yorker in 1957; it began, "A small book arrived in my mail not long ago, a gift from a friend in Ithaca."

In 1959, E.B. White, re-edited and resurrected his professor's book. Though White claimed that he was reluctant to pose as an authoritarian on rhetoric, he insisted, "Unless someone is willing to entertain notions of superiority, the English language disintegrates, just as a home disintegrates unless someone in the family sets standards of good taste, good conduct, and simple justice."

White revised the book further in 1972 and 1979. White said that while he was working on revisions of the book, he could visualize Strunk's "puckish face, short hair with middle part and bangs, blinking eyes, steel-rimmed glasses, nervously nibbled lips, and repeated adjurations to his students to be concise." The Elements of Style, in its various editions, has now sold more than 10 million copies. It's now often referred to simply as "Strunk & White." While many American college freshman and some aspiring writers have considered the book indispensable, others find it a source of great angst, and many esteemed writers have openly defied the conventions set forth, including Strunk's fellow Cornell literature professor Vladimir Nabokov. A new 50th anniversary edition of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style was published this year, and has brought a new wave of attention to the book. An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education a few months ago lambastes the book; Professor Geoffrey K. Pullman said that English syntax is "much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don't-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can't even tell when they've broken their own misbegotten rules."

American author Dorothy Parker once wrote, "If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they're happy."

Patsy Sears by way of:
Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac

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