Monday, January 12, 2009

Elements of Style

As was correctly pointed out to me, not everyone can express his thoughts well in writing (whether or not the thoughts themselves are coherent is quite a separate issue). I had a privilege of having good teachers — in particular, a brilliant professor of Byzantine History who taught me how to write well by beating me regularly making me re-write my essays which he returned to me all covered with corrections and notes in red ink. This allowed me to develop an intuitive feel for expressing myself in a more focused and succint way.

Recently I have become more sloppy with my writing (for instance, I am quite a fan of passive voice, which is a carry-over for me from Russian tradition), but the general idea of how to write well has been embedded in my skull forever. I can still correct my students’ papers, for example, for style and usage. (Scientific writing is quite another story. There, not so many rules apply; one just needs to be as dry as possible. By the way, it is interesting to read some papers from early 20th century — their language was quite flowery.)

Not everyone is lucky to have good teachers. Also, when one learns to write well by trial and error, the rules of writing become intuitive to him. Sometimes it helps to have a “carbon copy” of rules to refer to.

Any aspiring writer — and by that I mean anybody who wants to express his thoughts properly in English even in a note pinned by a magnet to a refrigerator door — must read Elements of Style by Strunk and White. In addition to that, it would be ideal for one to read many-many other books (my personal recommendation is to start from Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin naval series), but those will only help one’s style if one knows what to look for in a good language.

It is preferable to buy the last edition of Elements of Style, which has modern usage and orphography (most people no longer write to-day, for example), but for the basics, even the first edition will suffice (html version here).

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Of course, being born in Russia, I never mastered proper usage of articles. I [think I] know when and how to use them and sometimes do use them intuitively, but for the most part, they just don’t come to me naturally.

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I absolutely hate some aspects of American (and British) typography. Not leaving spaces—like this—around em-dashes (and not using proper en-dashes and minus signs — especially in scientific papers!), placing punctuations marks “inside a quotation,” leaving spaces within ellipsis. . .and not around it, and so on. I also think that Russian second-order „quotation marks“ look retarded (the «first-order ones» are fine).


The Real Shliach said...

Reading a lot in general will help, even if you don't know the basic rules, because you'll get a feeling for good writing.

The Real Shliach said... general, you'll get a lot more comments if you get rid of the word verification. Trust me.

Crawling Axe said...

What’s word verification?

Crawling Axe said...


I didn’t know I had that stupid thing on.

I agree that reading a lot will help in developing rhythm and tone of writing, but if you don’t know what to look for, the actual style of writing will be difficult to pick up. That’s where having your papers corrected helps. When someone crosses out some of your expressions and replaces them with better alternatives ten times, on the eleventh time you will get intuitive feel, why the alternative is better.

The Real Shliach said...

Now it looks gorgeous.

And yeah, English isn't your first language either, is it? In Hebrew, which I of course read, write, and understand, my conversation is atrocious, because I didn't really grow up listening to people speak it conversationally.

Crawling Axe said...

No, it’s not my first language. Although, it is really my second language. I started learning it when I was six. Before Hebrew. And Ukrainian. And Latin. And Ger… anyway, now I am just bragging.

I still have comprehension problems in a noisy environment. Like, I will sit in a car and not be able to follow a conversation if there is too much music and noise. For a while I thought I may be deaf, but I can follow conversation fine in Russian. (Although, I still actually may be deaf, since apparently, difficulty in hearing can arise both from physical difficulty in hearing and from mental difficulty in comperehension.)

The Real Shliach said...

Bragging, eh?

Comprehension, eh?

I love being a Minnesotan. Of course, if need be, I can also pull off Brookline or Mequon.