Monday, January 25, 2010

Even prose can be poetic

Earlier this morning I was reading today’s edition of The Writer’s Almanac when the whole thing turned into a rhyming poem. Today, it turns out, is the birthday of Virginia Woolf. Her first masterpiece, it said, was Mrs. Dalloway. After going on some more about Virginia Woolf (it also mentioned her To the Lighthouse and The Waves and her long essay, A Room of One’s Own), another factoid announced that today is also the birthday of the man who wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an' men / Gang aft agley” and “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, / And never brought to mind?” and “O my luve’s like a red, red rose, / That’s newly sprung in June; O my luve’s like the melodie / That’s sweetly played in tune” -- none other than Robert Burns, who, said The Writer’s Almanac, was born in 1759 in Scotland in the town of -- wait for it -- Alloway.

All of a sudden it struck me that Dalloway and Alloway rhyme and I thought of (a) my childhood friend John Galloway and (b) how the entire reading for today in The Writer’s Almanac was suddenly transformed from dull prose into a kind of lovely poem that someone like Ogden Nash might have written on a very good day.

The effect was short-lived, however, because a short final paragraph in which the writer of The Writer’s Almanac used the phrase “Burns’ poems” when any editor worth his or her salt knows it should be “Burns’s poems” brought me back to reality.

If you think “Burns’ poems” is just fine you obviously have never read The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. Strunk, who was White’s English professor at Cornell in 1919, had written the little book himself as a textbook for his classes. White re-published it in later years, adding an Introduction.

Here is Rule 1 from Will Strunk’s first chapter, Elementary Rules of Usage:

1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ’s.

Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,

Charles’s friend
Burns’s poems
the witch’s malice

Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names in es and is, the possessive Jesus’, and such forms as for conscience’ sake, for righteousness’ sake. But such forms as Moses’ laws, Isis’ temple are commonly replaced by

the laws of Moses
the temple of Isis

The pronominal possessives hers, its, theirs, yours, and ours have no apostrophe. Indefinite pronouns, however, use the apostrophe to show possession.

one’s rights
somebody else’s umbrella

A common error is to write it’s for its, or vice versa. The first is a contraction, meaning “it is.” The second is a possessive.

It’s a wise dog that scratches its own fleas.

(End of first page of Chapter 1 of The Elements of Style)

E.B. White, in his Introduction to the second edition of Strunk’s book, said:

“Some years ago, when the heir to the throne of England was a child, I noticed a headline in the Times about Bonnie Prince Charlie: “CHARLES’ TONSILS OUT.” Immediately Rule 1 leapt to mind.

Charles’s friend
Burns’s poems
the witch’s malice

Clearly, Will Strunk had foreseen, as far back as 1918, the dangerous tonsillectomy of a prince, in which the surgeon removes the tonsils and the Times copy desk removes the final s. I commend Rule 1 to the Times, and I trust that Charles’s throat, not Charles’ throat, is in fine shape today.”

I note happily that Will Strunk foresaw not only Charles’s tonsillectomy but also today’s edition of The Writer’s Almanac with the phrase “Burns’ poems” that jumped out of the blue to shatter my Alloway-Dalloway-Galloway reverie and return me to the cold light of day.

Just for good measure, I am going to throw in here Rule 13 in Strunk’s own words:

13. Omit needless words.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

E.B. Write called that paragraph “sixty-three words that could change the world.”

Elements of Style has its critics. Not everyone likes it or agrees with its rules. The world changes, time marches on, and language is not static.

But I like what Dorothy Parker said in her review of Elements for Esquire magazine in 1957: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”


  1. Ah, Dorothy Parker missed the third choice: to shape a long, open-ended rectangle of steel in tight proportion surrounding whichever edition of "Elements of Style" you feel is most sturdy, create a closed chamber at the far end to encase whatever combination of literature you deem most likely to cause an explosive reaction, aim the open end toward your target, and spark the favor with an inflammatory statement.

    Above random thought aside, you rarely fail to capture my attention. And, considering it's my fault when I'm not (oh, no! I have condemned myself in my own blog.... What a shock!) I continue to look forward to your contributions to my imagination and interests.

  2. i disagree, color is what you get when you add unneccessary letters, words, punctuation, repitition is golden, just look at the bible, of course the putz had to say this, probably the only verbose person able to make the current post could be edited in halfbut then as a i said in the outzy oost, can't change what natuere intended

  3. after re reading your piece, i have to agree with you, it, them, i am not a writer, no, i am not, i am a putz and i appologize for my inept efforts..i don't try hard enough

  4. SHOOT ME now while i am still happy

  5. Thanks'

    I fear that I sometimes forget everything I have ever learned about proper punctuation, grammar, etc. That being said, I strive for excellence; perfection is God's business.

    A most enjoyable post, dear RWP.

    Phoenix-Karenee is new to me; s/he has probably visited before and I've just missed the comment. I shall have to check out his/her blog when I have regained control of my own equipment.

    Now signing off the church computer. I'll be back when I can get here.

  6. I love the Elements of Style.

    And I'm very distressed that I am now working for a publisher who insists on using Moses's and Jesus's. It makes me want to run screaming into the street.

    But they pay me, so I have to follow their house style.

  7. Charles Throat - he runs the grocery shop down the road, doesn't he? Theres a big sign in his window:

    " SALE PRICE GOOD'S: Avocado's $2 for two. And your able to get you're phone card's here!!!!

  8. P-K (may I call you P-K?) - Your first paragraph made me frown, but your second one made me smile.

    Putz, Putz, and Putz - Your first comment proves you are a writer, your second comment claims you are not a writer, and your third comment seems to imply that you want to be a writer.

    Pat - I like what you said, "I strive for excellence; perfection is God's business." Yes, indeedy. May your tribe increase.

    Ruth - At IBM we used the University of Chicago (Chicago's?) Manual of Style as our house guide. At AT&T we had no style guide at all.

    I also like very much -- do you have it? -- Theodore M. Bernstein's The Careful Writer.

    Katherine - Hilarious! In the future, when I need avocado's or phone card's I'll know where to go to find them!

  9. So shoot me - I'm happy! But I do love your handy hints, RWP. All is grist to my mill...