August 05, 2006

The direct and vigorous hyptic voice

Big close-up of a man's face, "his short hair parted neatly in the middle and combed down over his forehead, his eyes blinking incessantly behind steel-rimmed spectacles as though he had just emerged into strong light, his lips nibbling each other like nervous horses, his smile shuttling to and fro under a carefully edged mustache."

No, it's not Jack Nicholson in the opening shot of The Shining II. This is Will Strunk, professor of English at Cornell University in 1919, as his student Elwyn Brooks White remembered him in 1979.

The dream sequence continues:

"Omit needless words!" cries the author on page 23, and into that imperative Will Strunk really put his heart and soul. In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself — a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had out-distanced the clock. Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times. When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, "Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!"

This is a curiously self-refuting oration. Since Professor Strunk had already distributed his list of rules in printed form to the class, he could simply have written "Rule 17" on the blackboard, pointed to his booklet, and impressed the students with that display of blinking, lip-nibbling and smile-shuttling. If speech were really needed after all the facial calisthenics, one repetition of "omit needless words" might have sufficed. Performing the injunction three times suggests that words can be useful even when they are strictly speaking redundant.

But Strunk specialized in self-refuting advice. When he told us that "Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard", he framed the advice in a sentence whose verbal core "can be made" is not only in the passive voice, but is also exactly analogous to the deprecated wording "could be heard".

Does Strunk follow his own Rule 11, "Use the active voice", elsewhere in the 1918 edition of Elements of Style? Well, let's take a look at what he says about Rule 9, "Make the paragraph the unit of composition":

If the subject on which you are writing is of slight extent, or if you intend to treat it very briefly, there may be no need of subdividing it into topics. Thus a brief description, a brief summary of a literary work, a brief account of a single incident, a narrative merely outlining an action, the setting forth of a single idea, any one of these is best written in a single paragraph. After the paragraph has been written, it should be examined to see whether subdivision will not improve it.

Ordinarily, however, a subject requires subdivision into topics, each of which should be made the subject of a paragraph. The object of treating each topic in a paragraph by itself is, of course, to aid the reader. The beginning of each paragraph is a signal to him that a new step in the development of the subject has been reached.

There are 11 tensed verbs in these two paragraphs, and only two of them are "transitive in the active voice". One is an active intransitive, five are passives, and the remaining two are forms of be, one in the deprecated there-construction. In fact, nowhere in the 1918 Elements of Style does Strunk try very hard to implement his assertion that "The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive". The end of the section on paragraphing, for example, features four passives, two copulas, and one (weakly intransitive) active-voice verb:

As a rule, single sentences should not be written or printed as paragraphs. An exception may be made of sentences of transition, indicating the relation between the parts of an exposition or argument.

In dialogue, each speech, even if only a single word, is a paragraph by itself; that is, a new paragraph begins with each change of speaker. The application of this rule, when dialogue and narrative are combined, is best learned from examples in well-printed works of fiction.

It seems that Will Strunk, who was certainly a direct and vigorous writer, was at least as fond of the direct and vigorous hyptic voice as his direct and vigorous contemporary Winston Churchill was. Vigor is as vigor does.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 5, 2006 07:13 AM