Friday, 21 December 2012

A Bit of Christmas Strunk

      I thought it might be nice to visit William Strunk in a little more depth, as his Elements of Style is still an insanely valuable book for any writer, despite its age; Strunk published it in 1935, if memory serves. Rule 11, using positive forms, is something every writer should remember. If you choose to disregard it, you do so at your peril. Positive, muscular prose will offset a plethora of other sins.


   This excerpt courtesy of Project Gutenberg, since Elements is out of copyright.

11. Put statements in positive form.

     Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, non-committal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.

He was not very often on time.
He usually came late.
He did not think that studying Latin was much use.
He thought the study of Latin useless.
The Taming of the Shrew is rather weak in spots. Shakespeare does not portray Katharine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare's works.
The women in The Taming of the Shrew are unattractive. Katharine is disagreeable, Bianca insignificant.


     The last example, before correction, is indefinite as well as negative. The corrected version, consequently, is simply a guess at the writer's intention.

     All three examples show the weakness inherent in the word not. Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; he wishes to be told what is. Hence, as a rule, it is better to express even a negative in positive form.

not honest
not important
did not remember
did not pay any attention to
did not have much confidence in


     The antithesis of negative and positive is strong:

Not charity, but simple justice.

Not that I loved Caesar less, but Rome the more.


(edit: as of 2012 I do find transparent use of antithesis to seem dated and needlessly theatric. If softened or disguised in dialogue, it’s still a great construction, but if done openly your prose sounds like a lawyer’s closing argument, or something from CSI: Miami.)


     Negative words other than not are usually strong:

The sun never sets upon the British flag.


That’s all for today, Merry Christmas and have a happy Winter Solstice!