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A Guide to Writing, Now Illustrated: Stylish New Look for 'Elements of Style'

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: some new elements in "The Elements of Style."

RS: "The Elements of Style" is a little book that for decades has served countless writers and editors. The two authors have long since passed away, but another edition of their work has just come out: "The Elements of Style Illustrated."

AA: The artist Maira Kalman based colorful and often whimsical illustrations on examples used in the book. She also worked with the young composer Nico Muhly to turn the examples into songs. The songs were performed recently in the Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library.

RS: We'll play some of the music later. But first we talk to Jack Hart, who calls himself "an old journalism school professor." He's the writing coach at the Oregonian newspaper in Portland. And he is a big fan of "The Elements of Style."

JACK HART: "It originated at Cornell University. It was originally produced by a professor named William Strunk in 1919. It was a handout in his classes and, as I recall, was only about forty-three pages long. And it was some basic principles that he wanted to pass along to his students in his writing courses.

"It really reflected the way American English had evolved through the second half of the nineteenth century and captured the sense that -- for the first time, I think really -- English was being regarded as a way to express rather than to impress. We were moving away from the really flowery Victorian English to a much more clear, direct way of expressing ourselves.

"One of the students in his courses at Cornell was a young man named E.B. White. [He] went on, became one of the best-known writers at the New Yorker magazine, maybe best known in this country for some of his children's books like 'Charlotte's Web.'

"And in the fifties, White was asked to dust off Professor Strunk's handout and expand on it a little bit, and that became the first published version of 'The Elements of Style' in this country. And it was really embraced by newspaper journalists, print journalists in general. And that made it especially influential as a model for how American English should be written."

AA: "Well, just the other day I was trying to figure out should we use lie or lay in a particular sentence. How do you remember it, or do you keep going back to your 'Elements of Style'?"

JACK HART: "Actually I'm at a hospital today for a medical procedure and the nurses keep telling me to 'Lay down on the table.' And I keep saying 'No, no, no! It should be lie down on the table,' because I remember my Strunk and White.

"But I think more important here are the principles of clarity and gracefulness in writing that White, who was an especially clear and witty and graceful writer himself, added in the Chapter Five of 'Elements of Style,' that he added in the published version."

RS: "And what does that entail?"

JACK HART: "Well, first of all, to write direct sentences, to not back into sentences, to start with a subject and then follow up with a verb, a predicate, and an object. To avoid passive voice, to use active verbs, to write 'Jack hit the ball' rather than 'The ball was hit by Jack.' This is a way of expressing yourself that really has become standard throughout the English-speaking world.

"I think 'The Elements of Style,' the book, has probably been more influential than any other source when it comes to influencing the way we write. There are ten million copies of this book in print. It gathers dust on millions of bookshelves, but is actively used by millions of people as well. Another quarter-million are produced every year. We're now moving into the fifth edition of the book, this new illustrated edition, so it's everywhere."

RS: "Does it change with every edition?"

JACK HART: "You know, really not much. When it was produced by Professor Strunk at Cornell, the students referred to it as 'The Little Book,' and I think one of the secrets of its success is that it's short and it really does cut to the heart of the matter. And it's still a relatively short, direct book of just a hundred and some pages. So it's been updated a little bit. You know, it's a little more politically correct, there are examples drawn more from the modern world. So yeah, it's been buffed up a little bit, but it's still the same old 'Elements of Style.'"

AA: Jack Hart is a managing editor and the writing coach at the Oregonian newspaper in Portland. He's also the author of a book due out next summer called "A Writer's Coach."

RS: Now here is a little of that musical adaptation of "The Elements of Style."


AA: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is, and our segments are online at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.


Illustrations provided by Penguin Press; copyright Maira Kalman, 2005