The Quiet Melody of a Sentence

By Team Athena 2020-05-31

She [Daisy] developed, without instruction or encouragement, a curious habit of holding people firmly by the ankle without actually biting them — a habit that gave her an immense personal advantage and won her many enemies... She never grew up, and she never took pains to discover, conclusively, the things that might have diminished her curiosity and spoiled her taste. She died sniffing life, and enjoying it.

Besides this perfect obituary for his beloved Scottish terrier, E.B. White is best known for expanding and popularizing The Elements of Style, his professor’s (William Strunk Jr.) guide to writing.

I had unknowingly spent years in linguistic purgatory before Mrs. Dahl, my high-school English teacher, introduced me to The Elements. Before that, I was frolicking in a bitter stew of clichés and fluffy phrases; churning out embarrassing essays populated by zombie sentences.

If you have to remember just one rule from The Elements, let it be this: Omit needless words.

I would like to call your undivided attention to the real fact that I am completely unaware of the manner in which I was transported to this spaceship. Nevertheless, I would like to take this moment in time to thank you profusely for the round bowl of cornflakes you had so graciously delivered to my incarceration enclosure. (57 words)

This paragraph is swimming with words and phrases that have no business being there. Think of a sentence as your room, and the unnecessary phrase is that neglected corner behind the bed littered with pencil shavings and cobwebs.

Now, consider this: I don’t know how I landed on this spaceship. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for the big bowl of cornflakes you had delivered to my prison cell. (25 words) Clean. Smooth. Refreshing.

The Elements of Style goes beyond straightforward writing advice. Strunk and White’s rules of writing are relevant to life itself. Whether you’re writing a Common App essay or arguing with a friend, powerful sentences get to the point instantly. Words are free, yes, but that does not mean you sprinkle the page with them willy-nilly.

Writing is not an exercise in excision; it’s a journey into sound,’ counters E. B. White. Whisper your sentences. It is the only way to know whether you have used the right words. It will be faint at first, but as you develop this habit, you’ll begin hearing the quiet melody of a well-constructed sentence.

If reading Strunk and White’s writing credo conjures up language nightmares, listen to the hip-hop version, instead – The Elements of Style. Here’s a taster:

Omit needless words. Good writing is concise

When I was in your class, you repeated that thrice

9 times out of 10 ‘student body’ is wrong

Say students instead. Move your story right along.

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