Tag Archives: E.B.White

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.

Pastoral prose poet: E.B. White

pastoral: of or pertaining to the the country or country life; having the qualities of idealized country life, such as charming simplicity and a leisurely, carefree pace.

I’m celebrating the birthday today of E.B. White, one of my all time top favorite writers, not even counting his children’s books. His essays on the “pastoral” life are as alive now as they were when he wrote them decades ago – poetry in prose. My favorite, “Death of a Pig,” makes me smile just to think of it.

From today’s Writer’s Almanac:

Today is the birthday of the man who gave us Charlotte’s Web, E.B. (Elwin Brooks) White, born in Mount Vernon, New York (1899). He was a writer for many years for The New Yorker magazine. He later moved with his wife to a farmhouse in Maine.

E.B. White wrote, “Just to live in the country is a full-time job. You don’t have to do anything. The idle pursuit of making a living is pushed to one side, where it belongs, in favor of living itself, a task of such immediacy, variety, beauty, and excitement that one is powerless to resist its wild embrace.”

White was a solid liberal whose political writings before and during World War II were especially thoughtful.

He was also a witty aphorist. Here are a few of my favorites:

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.

Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.

A good farmer is nothing more nor less than a handy man with a sense of humus.

I don’t know which is more discouraging, literature or chickens.

I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving he can outwit nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.

It is easier for a man to be loyal to his club than to his planet; the bylaws are shorter, and he is personally acquainted with the other members.

Prejudice is a great time saver. You can form opinions without having to get the facts.

A writer is like a bean plant, he has his little day, and then he gets stringy.

The trouble with the profit system has always been that it was highly unprofitable to most people.

The world is full of people who have never, since childhood, met an open doorway with an open mind.