As we conclude our centennial appreciation of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, let’s ponder parentheses and muse about misuses and misspellings.
This year we have taken an occasional look at the little book, and we are not alone in finding much to appreciate in the duo’s sage advice. In comments on my stories, many readers have recalled how the book helped clarify their prose.
Nancy Bowen Wiggins writes that she has been advocating the use of Shrunk and White for years.
“I was introduced to this writing style primer by my professor Hal Barber in grad school at Trinity University,” she says. “He said that I need a more straightforward method of writing to gain clarity to my presentation of thoughts. It has worked for me.”
Randall Bassin says rule No. 17—“Omit needless words”—has served him well over the years. “It is the one lecture by Professor William Strunk Jr. that I wish I could have attended, if only to cheer and applaud his point,” he writes. “One caveat: Purists may wish to defer to the Third Edition, as the Fourth infused examples of politically correct speech.”
One shy reader who gives his name only as Bob frets that social media and the lack of grammar education have made clear prose a lost art.
“Like your appearance at an important business meeting, the first impressions of your writing ability will often determine a person’s opinion of your education, intelligence and worth,” Bob states.
So let’s finish off chapter IV and mine grammatical gold from V and VI—the final two sections of “Elements.”
Punctuating with parentheses
Some writers stumble over the punctuation of parentheses, Strunk and White observe:
A sentence containing an expression in parenthesis is punctuated, outside of the marks of parenthesis, exactly as if the expression in parenthesis were absent. The expression within is punctuated as if it stood by itself, except that the final stop is omitted unless it is a question mark or an exclamation point.
The writing meisters offer these examples:
- I went to his house yesterday (my third attempt to see him), but he had left town.
- He declares (and why should we doubt his good faith?) that he is now certain of success.
(When a wholly detached expression or sentence is parenthesized, the final stop comes before the last mark of parenthesis.)
Others have drawn up further examples and rules on the topic. GrammarBook.comassures us:
This is a rule with a lot of wiggle room. An entire sentence in parentheses is often acceptable without an enclosed period:
Sure, but, well: No. This is where one must develop an ear for language.
Our executive editor and word czar, Rob Reinalda, polices our prose for parenthetical sentences subsumed into the previous sentence, as in the above example. He’s right. Better to write, “Please read the analysis. (You’ll be amazed.)” Best of all, in this case omit the parentheses altogether.
Misused words and phrases
Section V of “Elements” deals with a range of issues. Take the phrase “as to whether”; Strunk and White say an unencumbered “whether” is sufficient.
“Etc.” or “et cetera”—from the Latin phrase meaning “and the rest” or “and so forth”—is “[n]ot to be used of persons,” they insist. (I am going to have to inform my colleagues, etc.) Amplifying this, Shundalyn Allen of Grammarly notes that it should used only when unmentioned items in the list are of the same type as the mentioned ones. She offers this example:
- The children should bring paper, pencils, scissors, etc. (You can discern the category from the examples.)
- The children should bring crayons, blankets, birth certificates, etc. (The class is not clear. Unless you previously state the connection between the items and the rest of the list is easily imaginable, you can’t use etc.)
Strunk and White also have a keen eye for stuffy prose. Factor is “a hackneyed word; the expressions of which it forms part can usually be replaced by something more direct and idiomatic.”
Clumsy: His superior training was the great factor in his winning the match.
Better: He won the match by being better trained.
The writing sages likewise caution against using “while” as a synonym for “and,” “but” or “although.” (This is another infraction that our learned word czar catches in my own prose.)
Writers do this “either from a mere desire to vary the connective, or from uncertainty which of the two connectives is the more appropriate,” Strunk and White caution. (Untrue! We do it because we’re sleep-writing.) “In this use it is best replaced by a semicolon.”
- Wrong: The office and salesrooms are on the ground floor, while the rest of the building is devoted to manufacturing.
- Correct: The office and salesrooms are on the ground floor; the rest of the building is devoted to manufacturing.
Letters of the law
The book’s final section lists frequently misspelled words. Perhaps knowing that the word “sacrilegious” does not contain “religious” is less relevant in an era of spellcheck.
Then again, many professional writers continue to look up “affect” and “effect” every time they use either one, afflicted by a nagging sense that they haven’t quite gotten it right. (Editor’s note: There is nothing wrong with double-checking spellings and meanings, even if you’re “sure” about something—and especially if you’re “sure” about something.)
Strunk and White, of course, have their own tart advice on this point:
Effect. As noun, means result; as verb, means to bring about, accomplish (not to be confused with affect, which means “to influence”). As noun, often loosely used in perfunctory writing about fashions, music, painting, and other arts: “an Oriental effect;” “effects in pale green;” “very delicate effects;” “broad effects;” “subtle effects;” “a charming effect was produced by.” The writer who has a definite meaning to express will not take refuge in such vagueness.
After all, none of us seeks an opaque effect in our prose.