The Path to Pithyness: Elements of Style

OK OK. yuk yuk. I am not lithping. (Surprisingly, the word “pissy” is absent from my unabridged dictionary. Not that such an omission has ever stopped me from being a whiny ick now and then.)

Pithy: the essential, central part of anything, the gist. Precisely meaningful, cogent and terse. (From botany – the spongy core of a stem or branch)

Pithyness is an aspiration of mine. I want to get to the core of what I’m writing about using vivid language, no extraneous words, and a punchy snap.

Piece of cake. (ohyeah.)

I have owned E.B. White’s edition of Strunk’s book Elements of Style* for decades but it has collected dust most of that time. Last night I opened to the chapter on composition. For each rule he offers brief explanation and several examples.

Rule 10 is about using the active voice and avoiding perfunctory expressions such as “there were,” “the reason was”, “The fact that”. For example, for the final sentence in the previous paragraph I first wrote “There is a brief explanation…”. “He offers brief…” is much stronger.

Rule 11. Put statements in positive form. Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language.   Women find this rule especially challenging; we prefer to be indirect, to our detriment.

Instead of “He was not very often on time,” try “He usually came late.”
Instead of “not important” say “trifling”
Instead of “didn’t remember” say “forgot”
Instead of “did not have much confidence in” say “distrusted”.

I would add — omit wiggle phrases like, “I think…” “I believe…”  Just make your point, no apologies.

Rule 12. Use definite, specific, concrete language. Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.

Yesterday at Toastmasters the table topics questions (extemporaneous pop quiz) concerned summertime activities. One woman spoke about how much she loved summer, how wonderful the weather was, how relaxing, and so forth. Yawn.

Another opened her remarks by saying, “I spent summer afternoons with our neighbor, Miss Bertha, helping her bake blueberry pies…” Instantly we all conjured up our own images of Miss Bertha, the oven, the color and fragrance of the pies. Bingo.

* Check out Maira Kalman’s delightfully illustrated version of this book. If you don’t already own the plainjane version, spend the extra few dollars and get it.


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