Language is a gift, no doubt, but one that is much abused. Few heed the admonitions of scripture or good sense to be "quick to listen, and slow to speak" (Js. 1:19) or remember the reward of an apt word over an inept pronouncement. How many times I have spoken, or written, only to realize what dribble hangs in air or rests on paper? Not so with E.B. White.
You'll recognize White's name as the author of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, two children's classics that were much loved in our home, but his prose ranged beyond children's stories. He wrote a daily column or essay for The New Yorker for many years (before my time). However, before I knew any of these other accomplishments and before I had children to read to, I knew him as the apparent co-author of the bible of English usage, The Elements of Style. The 'little book," as White's Cornell professor William Strunk affectionately called it, was originally written by Strunk and privately published for his students and years later revised and modestly enlarged by White at his publisher's request, after Strunk had died.
The book is a model of brevity. It says things like "Do not overstate," or "Do not explain too much," "Omit needless words," "Avoid fancy words," or simply "Be clear. All are issued in just such commanding tones, and the writer, properly chastened, returns to his craft -- whether letter, article, or novel -- with renewed vigor. I know I do.
The injunction "be clear" could not be more clear, and yet the authors' three-paragraph rationale is both fun and informative to read. Listen:
Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded highway sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railway station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram. Think of the tragedies rooted in ambiguity, and be clear! When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.
Oh, the pitfalls of language, the litter of unclarity. "Be obscure clearly," he says, if obscure is what you want. Say what you want to say. Say it well. Language matters.
Knowingly or unknowingly, in fashioning rules, in emphasizing clarity and brevity, Strunk and White were mimicking the Author of Life, whose first recorded words over creation were simply "Let there be light." No flowery or fanciful language. Simply that: "Let there be light." In contrast, in Eve's first recorded words, she actually adds words to what God had so clearly said (as in, ". . . and you must not touch it, or you will die"), and so is born the news commentator. And still we go on. One wonders if God sometimes regrets having given us language, and yet, even that he must have called "good."
Remembering Strunk, his college professor, White says this:
In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed to be in the position of having shortchanged himself --- a man left with nothing more to say and yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had out-distanced the clock. Will Strunk got out of the predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times. When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said,"Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!"
At that, I can imagine him packing his briefcase and leaving the classroom, a visible demonstration of his three-word point. Politicians, pundits, and pastors take heed! Omit needless words! And as Strunk often said, "If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!" Better to be wrong than irresolute or inaudible, he would say.
I recommend The Elements if Style, as well as The Essays of E.B. White (an immensely pleasurable read on various topics), or, failing that, Charlotte's Web or Stuart Little. They are models of clarity, brevity, and style, and full of life and humor -- like hearing God talk.