The Elements of Style, Fifty Years Young

The Elements of StyleIt's the little book that taught generations of writers to "Omit needless words," "Use the active voice" and "Be clear," so it was fitting that The Elements of Style celebrated its fiftieth birthday in the company of some of America's most polished wordsmiths.

"I'm very fond of this book and I'm proud to be up here talking about it," said writer and humorist Roy Blount Jr., speaking at an April 16 symposium in New York. The event marked five decades since William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White's guide to writing style and usage was first published on April 16, 1959 - a week after NASA introduced the first U.S. astronauts, dubbed the "Mercury Seven."

In the fifty years since, Mercury has given way to Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and other space programs, yet "Strunk and White" - as it's fondly called - has never been supplanted either as a reference book or an object of affection, and has sold more than 10 million copies.

"I've seen hundreds of proposals for would-be Strunk and Whites over the years," said Joe Opiela, publisher for English college textbooks at Pearson, "but I've yet to see anything as compelling, straightforward, concise and useful."

The Elements of StyleFiftieth Anniversary Edition, With Acclaim

Pearson has published a fiftieth anniversary edition of The Elements of Style, a 105-page reprint of the fourth edition, bound in black leather and embossed in gold, with a new publisher's note on the book's history. It also includes "Fifty years of Acclaim" for Strunk and White from the likes of celebrated wit Dorothy Parker, novelist Richard Ford and David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker magazine, who wrote: "The Elements of Style never seems to go out of date."

The book's timeless nature was on display at the symposium at the Museum of the City of New York, whose panellists besides Mr. Blount included authors Roger Rosenblatt and Lauren Lipton, and moderator Barbara Wallraff, language editor at The Atlantic magazine. Organizers set out 150 chairs in the museum auditorium, and extra seats were needed to accommodate an overflow audience that included many students and teachers of English.

"It's a friendly book and it's inspiring," said Mr. Blount, author of seventeen books including last year's Alphabet Juice, who brought to the event his own well-used copy of Strunk and White's first edition, given to him upon his high school graduation.

"I'm grateful for the good bedrock common sense of the book," added Mr. Rosenblatt, an essayist, author of eleven books and one-time literary editor of The New Republic magazine.

The Elements of Style"Whole campus gone wild"

Pearson provided a display of archival material related to The Elements of Style, including a Western Union telegram sent in August 1959 to Macmillan, the book's original publisher, from a bookseller in the college town of Berkeley, California. "Send 300 more," the telegram pleads. "Whole campus gone wild."

Then, as now, students needed to avoid confusing "aggravate" ("to add to" an "already troublesome or vexing matter") with "irritate" ("to vex" or "to annoy"), or "farther" (a "distance word") with "further" (a "time or quantity word").

Yet rather than serving as a straitjacket, the little book's guidelines can help writers find their voice, said Ms. Lipton, who talked about how she studied The Elements of Style as a high school freshman in the 1970s. "I learned that rules are freeing," she told the museum audience.

The Elements of StyleUpdated, but not overhauled

Through several revisions, The Elements of Style has kept up with the times - at least to a degree.

The book originated in a 43-page guide to clear English writing, privately printed by Mr. Strunk, who was one of Mr. White's favorite teachers at Cornell University in New York just after World War I. Mr. White expanded it four decades later into the book published by Macmillan in 1959, and then revised it in 1972 and 1979. Mr. White, also known for the children's classics Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little and a long-time New Yorker essayist, died in 1985.

Pearson acquired The Elements of Style in 1995. A fourth edition appeared in 2000, with a foreword by Mr. White's son-in-law, Roger Angell. He explained that while the book now included feminine pronouns, and poet Sylvia Plath had replaced Keats, a line was drawn to exclude informal e-mail style - "the rules-free, lower-case flow" that has crept into modern electronic communications.

The Elements of Style is full of "sharp commands, Sergeant Strunk snapping orders to his platoon," Mr. White wrote in his introduction to the 1979 edition. He described Mr. Strunk, who died in 1946, as a "friendly and funny" man, but one who would "quiver with revulsion" at certain expressions. He particularly despised the phrase "the fact that."

White's final words appear to hold true for his readers even after fifty years: "It still seems to maintain its original poise, standing, in a drafty time, erect, resolute, and assured."

The anniversary was featured on April 16th on National Public Radio in the U.S. Listen to the programme