“No one,” declared James Thurber, “can write a sentence like E. B. White.”1 Throughout his six-decade career, White was widely celebrated for his mastery of “the plain style.” His columns and anecdotes for the New Yorker, his longer essays, and his immensely popular trio of children’s books (Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan) were invariably praised for their clarity and unadorned directness, not to mention their pithy gestures of tasteful irreverence.
In addition to being an acclaimed essayist and children’s author, White had the curious fate to have written the book on how to write, or at least part of it, when he updated and expanded a pamphlet his former teacher William Strunk Jr. had created for his students at Cornell. The result was the most successful composition guide of all time. The Elements of Style—“Strunk and White”—has sold more than 10 million copies and is still a staple of higher-education syllabuses, although it is assigned far more often than it is read.
It might seem self-evident that White the author practiced what Strunk and White the style gurus preached, but the truth is more complicated. Like Ernest Hemingway, who mocked his fans’ enthusiasm for the writing tips he dispensed, White had mixed feelings about being anointed a master of plain prose. If The Elements of Style is a paean to expressive austerity, this is hardly the compositional philosophy on display in White’s children’s books, which are nothing if not celebrations of verbal élan. Always ready with the next bon mot or riposte, the principal characters are distinguished by their remarkable facility with language, in all its dynamic complexity. Louis, a mute trumpeter swan, thrives in both the human and avian communities because he almost effortlessly learns to read and write English. Stuart Little, the mouse who is not a mouse, demonstrates a seemingly innate knowledge of elaborate jargons and dialects with which he has no prior experience; and Charlotte the spider is able to keep Wilbur the pig from being turned into bacon thanks to her talent for penning catchy slogans.
In flaunting linguistic flamboyance, the children’s novels implicitly question the core injunctions of The Elements of Style. If we were talking about anyone but White, this would not be surprising. The staying power of Elements notwithstanding, it is a work people love to hate, and it is routinely lambasted for its pedantry, the capriciousness of its prescriptions, and its propensity to violate its own rules. To suggest that one of the book’s authors is uncomfortable with its central doctrines, however, is something different.
Perhaps it is simply a matter of acknowledging the differences between Strunk’s compositional philosophy and White’s. The handout Strunk created for his students largely consisted of high-handed pronouncements that left little room for discussion, and White’s unease with his former teacher’s rigidity is legible in his presentation of him as a sort of grammarian sophist. Strunk’s likes and dislikes, explains White, “were almost as whimsical as the choice of a necktie,” yet he had an uncanny ability to make his preferences “seem convincing.”2 Under this prescriptive regime, the rhetoric of rule making threatens to become more important than the rules themselves.
In the course of revising and expanding Strunk’s text for publication, White took it upon himself to temper its most imperious features, but one passage that made it into the best-selling book largely unchanged was its now famous hymn to concision:
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.
The antiornamental bent of Strunk’s philosophy smacks of puritanical austerity. The Protestant work ethic, not to mention the spirit of capitalism, is alive and well in this Fordist validation of our responsibility to actualize our labor power when expressing ourselves verbally. Although this doctrine was not original to Strunk, he canonized it, and today it is championed on the websites of numerous college-writing labs, which offer prescriptions such as: “Like bad employees, words that don’t accomplish enough should be fired.”3
Strunk apparently had no qualms about practicing what he preached. As White recalls, his former teacher’s unflagging commitment to the principle of concision meant that he often found himself with time to fill at the end of class. His solution was to say everything three times, including the “Omit needless words!” injunction itself, which became a mantra to be recited over and over. The irony that an imperative to brevity should lead to speaking in triplicate turns comical in Charlotte’s Web, where the gander says everything three times, much to the other characters’ annoyance.
White’s major contribution to The Elements of Style was the essay “An Approach to Style,” which is now the book’s fifth chapter. While the earlier parts, based on Strunk’s original pamphlet, deal with “what is correct, or acceptable, in the use of English,” this new section moves the discussion to “style in its broader meaning: style in the sense of what is distinguished and distinguishing.”
As it happens, the first rule of style club is that there are no rules: “There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course.” In the New Yorker, White went further, declaring: “A schoolchild should be taught grammar—for the same reason that a medical student should study anatomy. Having learned about the exciting mysteries of an English sentence, the child can then go forth and speak and write any way he damn pleases.”4 Ironically, the most successful style manual of the 20th century was a guide to freestyling.
Austerity is hardly the compositional philosophy on display in White’s children’s books, which are nothing if not celebrations of verbal élan.
Fans of White’s children’s books will not be surprised. All three novels stridently interrogate the rhetorical choices of their characters, as if to make the point that their “plain” language is anything but simple. Informed by a lamb that pigs “mean less than nothing” to him, Wilbur offers a disquisition on the incoherence of the expression, which culminates in his adamant declaration that “nothing is absolutely the limit of nothingness.”5 A couple pages later, Wilbur and Templeton the rat embark upon a discussion of the idiom “I hardly know the meaning of the word” that quickly becomes a reflection on the perils of idioms in general. Even minor figures play a part in analyzing one another’s figures of speech, as when Louis the swan’s father, a lovable but thoroughly vain bird, is chided by his wife for declaring that he glides “swanlike” on the water, there being no other way, she notes, for a member of their species to traverse a pond.
At moments, it is hard to escape the sense that these books are actively working to undercut the dicta of Elements. While the style manual urges us to “avoid fancy words,” there is rarely a conversation between Charlotte and Wilbur in which she does not explain some piece of vocabulary to him, a reminder that every word is “fancy” before you learn it. Similarly, Elements enjoins us to “write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs” and to “avoid the use of qualifiers,” but Charlotte’s stylistic triumphs demonstrate the power of one- and two-word exclamations in which nouns are scarce and verbs are entirely absent: “SOME PIG!”; “TERRIFIC”; “RADIANT”; “HUMBLE.”
Explicit alternatives to the plain style are also on offer. When a teacher in The Trumpet of the Swan asks her first-grade class what “catastrophe” means, we are treated to a lesson in the difference between definition and exemplification, as the students respond that a catastrophe is an earthquake, a war, or, as “a small girl named Jennie” clarifies:
When you get ready to go on a picnic with your father and mother and you make peanut-butter sandwiches and jelly rolls and put them in a thermos box with bananas and an apple and some raisin cookies and paper napkins and some bottles of pop and a few hard-boiled eggs and then you put the thermos box in your car and just as you are starting out it starts to rain and your parents say that there is no point in having a picnic in the rain, that’s a catastrophe.6
Precocious rhetorician that she is, Jennie has rejected the plain or Senecan sentence in favor of the periodic or Ciceronian sentence, in which considerable care is taken to ensure that the core claim does not fully emerge until the final words.7 Importantly, Jennie’s sentence follows the rules of The Elements of Style as much as it breaks them. While her classmates may put her to shame on the brevity front, her reply illustrates the power of Strunk and White’s injunction to “place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.” Presumably, this first grader is also following the recommendation of Elements that one pursue a style “that comes naturally.”
A Ciceronian sentence is an intricate, precisely calibrated formation. If one can surface in a first-grade classroom, it would appear that the plain style does not enjoy a monopoly on naturalness, which is to say that the plain style is just as artificial as any other mode of writing and has no special claim to being intrinsically straightforward or clear. This point is nicely illustrated at the beginning of Stuart Little, where both the narrator and the characters alternate between stating that the eponymous Stuart is a mouse and stating that he is uncannily like a mouse. White himself maintained that he had not written anything that would confirm that his protagonist was not a human being, and in fact, it was only when his friends insisted that he review his novel’s opening chapters that he acknowledged the uncertainty created by his discordant—if exceptionally “plain”—formulations.
Reading the opening pages of Stuart Little, Edmund Wilson anticipated that this book about a mouse being born into a human family was a rewriting of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in which traveling salesman Gregor Samsa awakes one morning to discover that he’s been transformed into a monstrous insect. As he made his way through White’s story, however, Wilson was disappointed to find that the arrival of this bizarre new member of the family was relatively unthreatening for the other characters. In fact, the novel may be more Kafkaesque than Wilson realized. The narrator tells us that Stuart’s parents “never quite recovered from the shock and surprise of having a mouse in the family” and decided that “there must be no references to ‘mice’ in their conversation.”8 If White himself was sucked into his own characters’ campaign of censorship to the point that he refused to admit ever saying that Stuart was a mouse, this is because his prose had become so “straightforward” that it could no longer acknowledge the very distinction between the literal and the figurative, making it impossible for us—and White—to know when “is” means “is like” and when “is like” means “is.”
Writing about George Orwell, Hugh Kenner argued that “plain prose—the plain style—is the most disorienting form of discourse yet invented by man.”9 For Kenner, plain sentences are the realm of trickery and lies because they are blindly committed to the idea that what they say must be true. Turning the plainness of plain language against itself, White’s children’s books suggest that every sentence is torn between an adult insight into its own artificiality and a childlike enchantment with the possibility that one can make something so just by saying it. If the acclaimed master of unadorned prose has one thing to teach us about style, it’s that there is nothing inherently simple, direct, or reliable about “plain” language, which can be every bit as complex, convoluted, or duplicitous as its flashier counterparts.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
- Cited in In the Words of E. B. White: Quotations from America’s Most Companionable of Writers, edited by Martha White (Cornell University Press, 2011), p. 20. ↩
- The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr., With Revisions, an Introduction, and a Chapter on Writing, by E. B. White, 4th ed. (Pearson, 2000), p. xvi. ↩
- ”Concision,” Purdue Online Writing Lab, College of Liberal Arts, Purdue University (accessed August 24, 2020). ↩
- E. B. White, “The Living Language,” Writings from The New Yorker, 1927–1976, edited by Rebecca M. Dale (Harper Perennial, 2006), p. 142. ↩
- E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web (1952; HarperCollins, 2012), p. 28. ↩
- E. B. White, The Trumpet of the Swan (1970; Scholastic, 1987), p. 61. ↩
- Perhaps the best-known example of such a sentence in White’s children’s books comes at the end of Charlotte’s Web: “Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died” (p. 171). ↩
- E. B. White, Stuart Little (1945; Harper & Row, 2005), p. 9. ↩
- Hugh Kenner, “The Politics of the Plain Style,” in Mazes: Essays (North Point, 1989), p. 261. ↩