The Elements of Style is a tiny manual you can turn to when you need to know the proper use of the semicolon, remind yourself of some commonly misused words and expressions, or how to appropriately utilize a colloquialism. It is the only style manual to ever appear on bestseller lists and has explained to millions of readers the basic principals of plain English.
However, artist Maira Kalman found more than writing advice in the book. While reading, she found wonderfully vivid images spring to mind in the example sentences Strunk and White used to explain the writing guidelines. For example, when discussing the proper use of the word than, White uses the following example: It looked more like a cormorant than a heron. On pronoun cases, you’ll find this example: Polly loves cake more than she loves me. As Kalman says about The Elements of Style in this New York Times article, “Each sentence was so full of incredible visual reference. I said to myself, how could anyone not have illustrated this before?”
You can see ten of the illustrations she painted for The Elements of Style on her website. I think you’ll enjoy her whimsical, almost surreal style. Or, purchase your own copy of The Elements of Style Illustrated Edition and enjoy them all.
The story doesn’t stop there. Not only did Kalman illustrate the book, but she then convinced composer Nico Muhly to transform the work into a cantata. It was performed at the New York Public Library in 2005. I thought you might like to hear a little more about the illustrated edition, as well as the music it inspired, in this NPR audio clip.
One of the songs you can hear in that audio piece is called Be Obscure. It’s based on a paragraph in The Elements of Style about clear writing.
Clarity, clarity, clarity. When you become hopelessly mired in a sentence, it is best to start fresh; do not try to fight your way through against the terrible odds of syntax. Usually what is wrong is that the construction has become too involved at some point; the sentence needs to be broken apart and replaced by two or more shorter sentences.
But the line that, I think, inspired the song was this one: “Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!”
I doubt that E.B. White imagined his style guide put to music. Isn’t it wonderful how we influence one another? Isn’t it amazing that we can find inspiration in unexpected places once we begin to look? Have you read The Elements of Style and have any thoughts you can add about the book in the comments below?