Strunk and White - Part 1

Cat Shape as Enzyme

  1. Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.

MY FATHER TOLD ME, “Children are to be seen and not to be heard.”

My father had a number of saying like this. He also said that a person was an adult at the age of seven. I realized that my father didn’t have a problem with childhood so much as he wanted childhood to be adulthood. He wanted to believe that an eight-year old and an adult were the same age. This seemed like an organized way of categorizing age. You were an infant. You were a child. You were an adult. He also said that he would live to be three hundred years old, and that death was a state of mind, as if death came to those who somehow lacked the will to go on.

Yet, our family conversations were not organized. My brother couldn’t keep up and sometime he would throw down a massive dash to set an abrupt break so that he could have the floor. We were supposed to juggle the threads of the conversation, and if you wanted to return to a subject that someone had dropped, just go there. But instead, my brother lost the strain of the conversation and finally said, “–”



“Are you trying to say something?”

“Everyone is interrupt–”

“–and the cats need a dry place outside.”

“Stop interrupting me,” he said. “I would like to propose we go to pizza for dinner.’

“I’m dressed for the pizza place,” my mom said.

“What does that mean to be dressed for the pizza place?”

“The cats are locked out during the day when we are at school and they can only go into the forest to stay dry. I think they should have a place to stay dry that is safe.”

“How come I can’t pick–”

“I could cut a hole in the wall–”

“–Not in my house.”

“I could make a kitty door and then they could come–”

“–And so could every other wild animal in the neighborhood, because–”

“–our cats aren’t wild. They are friendly, almost too–”

“–it would be kitty shaped,” Dad said, “So that only they would it through the door. Like an enzyme, I could–”

“–like you can cut a cat shape in the wall like that,” Mom said. “And then the cat would have to fit on the wall. Better to make them just small enough–”

“–please please please,” my brother said. “Can we eat pizza?”

Strunk and White - Part 1

A list of particulars

  1. Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative

IS THIS THE ONLY way to use a colon, or are there other ways to use a colon:

for example, in 1980 I took a bike-safety class in front of the gym of my school and they set up traffic cones and I had to zig-zag between them to pass the class;

for example, in 1981 we lived in a new subdivision called Cedar Village which was across the street from an older subdivision called Wilderness Rim and our new subdivision was proceeding cement foundation by cement foundation toward the Cedar River Watershed — I could tell because the surveying sticks sprouted in the woods. I encouraged the neighborhood kids to harvest them and use them as swords in our large staged battles;

for example, in 1983 when we moved to a decaying farm house with a basement that filled with river water every fall from our new suburban home with a cement slab foundation that never flooded — not even in the thousand year flood — I biked on a loop around the Mount Si Golf Course passing far enough away from Mount Si that I could see the peaks of the mountain through the mist, and then back again along the North Fork Road busy with loggers returning home from a drink at the Mount Si Tavern or the various lounges in North Bend and I never was hit;

for example, in 1984, I biked on my ten speed, the gears stiff from having been left out in the rain, and I arrived at the confluence of the Middle Fork and the North Fork of the Snoqualmie in a region of alder wood and cottonwood trees where the rivers churned the valley floor, lifting up smooth stones that were gray, green, and blue, and I would skip these stones across the falsely placid gathering of rivers in roiling masses that might look like a pond unless you knew that the rivers gathered downstream to the second confluence of the South Fork and the Snoqualmie before they briefly collected itself into the full river in the upper valley, passing between the town of Snoqualmie and the Weyerhaeuser Mill and then plunging over the falls;

for example, in 2000 long after I road bicycles much at all, when I did ride a bike I would stuff a pant cuff into my sock to prevent it from tangling in the gear and by the time I was done biking my legs throbbed and I would bike once with my father from his house in Moon Valley down to the trestle bridge over the Middle Fork in the narrow triangle of land up river from the confluence and my father asked me to stay at his house for a while.

I am not sure why he did that because as soon as he did that he began to drink heavily and then he asked me to go.

Strunk and White - Part 1

Do not break a sentence into two

  1. Do not break sentences in two.

SOMEONE TAUGHT ME at some point when I was a child that a sentence was a complete thought, a comma was a breath, a period was a full stop. Stop. Between a period and the capital in the next sentence, there was nothing.

A full stop in what? A text is a road and a period is a stop sign? When I write in my journal I write as I think and I don’t know if I have what is called run-on sentence, which disregards fully-formed thought and is rather a jumble of half-thoughts, blurts of semi-thoughts, meandering suppositions that contradict themselves like carefully crafted beanbags, like haphazard and accidental microchips, like dolphins with feathers — I don’t think in sentences, or do I think in clauses that are neither dependent nor independent but rather interdependent like a beach has sand dollars or a dollar has cents.

A paradox is that as a tangle of meaning my thoughts are elusive when I attempt to put them into words. This saying, “to compose your thoughts,” hints at this sea of impulses and images coming into and going out of existence and from this I compose my thoughts into a sentence. A sentence is a translation.

But what is it a translation of?

My thoughts are not my consciousness but rather a byproduct just as my breath is a byproduct of being alive.

Stop. Why this is a stop? It is likely a stop because that train of thought has run its course.

I have a voice in my head. But if it is in my head, is in my head like a hat inside of a hat case? This voice in my head does not speak or even articulate words or even occupy a single through line. As I struggle to write down words I’m slicing off flecks from whatever this ongoing electrical impulse of consciousness is doing; it is to lay out a single instance savoring the black coffee I have just swallowed, the critic acid of a peach flavored calorie-free drink I have swallowed that has natural flavors but I wonder if those natural flavors are chemicals, my wrist free of its watch that is always telling time is free of time, there is a slight itch in my right ear, there is a someone speaking next door and he is making stuff up so that he sounds knowledgeable (this is his great strength, the affable and chummy pretense of knowledge and because he clearly is making it up he threatens no one and the content of his sentences are drained of meaning and only leave behind husks that tell whoever is listening to him that he has ceded all authority and that all that he wants is for them to like him and I wonder what he would do if someone called in on his lack of knowledge, his shocking ignorance that has even less to do with his age and more to do with the fact that he thinks he already knows it because most of the time he can pause and in the space of a period hop onto Google and discover the answer to this or that factoid. He cites numbers such as people only read for four minutes online, people will only pay attention to the hook of a pop song that lasts less four seconds and the rest of the 3:33 is to give bulk to the 45 so that there something to sell — people do in fact buy hooks in the form of ring tones so that when their mother calls them can hear that thrilling drone at the beginning of the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” or the opening bass of some pop song that I don’t know the name of: Just reboot.

Do not break a sentence in into halves because you will have nothing. Don’t do this because it won’t make sense. Don’t do. It.

Because if you do, you will begin to damage the idea that there is a syntax and an order to typesetting and lowercase and capital letters. We will see that sentences are not thought made tangible but are an elaborate hoax that in fact have as much to do with thought as a hat case has to do with keeping your head dry.

A sentence is a complete thought. Are any thoughts complete?

Strunk and White - Part 1

A Semi-Colon is Not a Period

  1. Do not join independent clauses with a comma.

A SENTENCE IS A COMPLETE thought. This is an idea of a sentence. That a sentence expresses something that is self-contained and complete as if a thought can be encapsulated like a leaf on a tree and pulled from the tree and sealed in a photo album and that this sentence will be somehow complete. A cell is a complete thing; a cell is not a necessarily single-cell organism. A cell requires context to live. A sentence also requires context.

An independent clause is a kind of sentence in a sentence. An independent clause contains the parts of a sentence: subject, predicate, and sense. That is an independent sentence is a complete thought within a complete thought. Unresolved recursion almost always suggests infinity to the human mind. The linguistic brain can process infinity. Recursion may prove to be the way that humanity manages to remain useful after artificial intelligence. Like rayon, AI may prove to be more valuable to industry than silk — machines can make rayon and AI, they cannot make silk or human consciousness. AI can never know the infinite. The human brain, however, can accommodate this. Maybe this the cause of mysticism? A brain is stuck in an infinite recursive loop and rather than crashes finds God.

A sentence without context can be misquoted. A beautiful thing about Twitter is that is a pool of single-celled organisms looking for context. It is a pool of unattached sentences looking to acquire meaning.

We have from the ancient world a sequence of marks removed from their context. These are epigraphs lifted from tombstones, graffiti carved into the sides of turtles, monuments, in scrolls where someone made notes from books that have long been missing. There are writers we only know from their fragments. Only a single poem of Sappho remains. The rest are fragments, as complete as a pile of independent clauses, as useful as knowing the body of Joyce Carol Oats by only having a record of @JoyceCarolOates.

Consider a sentence spray painted on the side of a cargo container. Is this a complete thought?

It is I think a gesture as meaningful as Vini, Vidi, Vichi If you know where to comes from if you have context, if you have more sentences, it means something. Otherwise, it is as useful as springing the apple tart from the robin.

At what point does a sentence have enough context? What is the minimal viable linguistic organism? Is it a novel? A set of novels? A shelf of books? If aliens were somehow to come across the library of Harvard classics would they know America? Would they even know Harvard?

The Harvard Classics are a kind of library-length tweet. They were limited to a set of books that fit on a five shelf that would provide a liberal education.

All sentences are just utterances. And yet a sentence has a shape and a form. The simple way of describing a sentence is that it is something that does something to something else. It is a subject with an action word that does something to an object. Sentences express objects acting on other objects, or a sentence expressed a proposition expressing a relationship between one object and another object. A is B. A is not B. A verb B. And yet these utterances belong to a continuous stream of words and ideas and none of them are an omelette. The whole idea is not complete. The smallest element is not complete. They are nested dolls of vagueness proceeding from the entire corpus of written words down words to the bodies of works organized in whatever organization schema makes sense to you.

I believed once that a person could encode their personality into written words and that the written world would somehow convey some essential aspect of myself beyond myself to other people. They would know me by reading my sentences. While the individual propositions of A is B, or B verb A, and etc. would recreate a mind in action, would recreate my mind in action, in fact, this recreation was a construction. The authorial presence of me making these words was something made up and calculated.

An act of communication involves a transmission, a reception, and a validation of the successful transmission. Talking to someone is communication. All written language does not complete this basic pattern. A writer sets down words and walks away.

Sapho has no way of validating that I have read what she wrote. Although I have a sense of who might have written Sappho’s fragments, if I were to somehow meet here we would be strangers.

The only way you could know her is to know her. In reading her works, I am really in a correspondence with myself. I am assembling a fiction made of things I have experienced. I am filling in the mind that had created her sentences with my own mind as I recreate the linguistic expression of the text.

This illusion can be very intense when reading a text or not there at all. E.B. White as a man at his desk in his little shed in Maine pops into existence in reading the essays in One Man’s Meat. Professor Strunk, however, remains inscrutable; he is visible not through his rulebook but through the flashes of memory recorded by White.

A sentence, or an independent clause, contains a complete thought. By convention, it is a thing. And this thing exists in relation to other things. A sentence is actually a container for this thing. This thing is joined to a set of other things by the paragraph. And within this paragraph, the things are joined and separated by periods. A semi-colon expresses a partial join. It is like capturing a cell in mid-divide. A semicolon is like two shadows that are leaning toward each other and there is a tiny part that is not actually part of either object where the shadows jump across the void to join.

This rule about independent clauses is actually about semicolons. The punctuation mark of the semicolon, in fact, is often avoided by writers. Kurt Vonnegut is often misquoted as saying he hated the semicolon.

Yet no one who has read widely has any question about them or their meaning. They are safely within the confines of the paragraph and express the coordination of two sentences, this overlap, and interdependence of meaning, a syntactical conjoined twin. Em dashes are a slide between words. Commas a breath within the thingness of a sentence. A semicolon is a lifted finger, but I am not yet there yet. I am going to circle around and tell you more.

Language is repetitive and iterative despite what we have been taught in our 1910s grammar books. Linear sentences are not read in a linear manner. While the written word may suggest the ABC-minded, we struggle against the scaffolding, our eyes jump, and hop. Our mind wanders. Even as I write this in the morning, I can hear my dog waking up and then scratching himself on the walls because he thinks I am distracted. As you read this you heard something going on outside of our range of focus. You are not in a dark room locked into the rail car (no doubt contains a container car festooned with spray-painted independent clauses) but rather in the light where your mind can wander and the surface of this text is a collection of leaves on the surface of a river.

The semicolon embraces this reality. To cleanly resolve semicolons to periods is to discard the always emergent and contradictory and uncontrolled meaning and bleeding of meaning in a text. You can make meaning into peas and carrot and put them in their proper trays in your aluminum TV dinner tray. Do what you like.

Strunk and White - Part 1

Independent Claws

  1. Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.

I WAS SLIGHTLY older than my classmates and slightly younger than the kids a year ahead of me in school. Humans are like flowers. I got along with the kids a year older than me and the kids three years younger than me. The kids in my own class, I didn’t understand. When I spoke, it was as if I began to speak with a comma instead of a capital letter at the beginning of the sentence.

“, at the edge of the Mount Si, stone slabs sloughed off the granite cliffs. Beneath them were cave systems formed between the gap of the rock mass and the field of smaller, looser stone.”

Bewildered the kid brushed the hair out of his eyes and asked me, “Did you say something before?”

“, before what?”, I said.

“It sounded like I missed something. You said something before.” The kid wore a blue t-shirt with dark blue borders at the collar and his sleeves. There was a big, blocky number on his chest: 7. He didn’t play sports. He liked math. He played chess. With me, we made an attempt to play soccer at lunch. We ran from one side of the field to the other following the ball. Mud splattered up the back of our pants legs. Because we followed the ball, we were always behind it. The field was damp and the play had crushed the horsetails. The bear grass couldn’t be pulverized under the crowd of kids chasing the ball.

Later the classroom smelled of the clay field muck, a dense odor like engine oil or coffee grounds.

“, I said everything there is to say about it,” I said.

“OK,” he said. He shrugged. This was 7’s skill. I don’t remember his name now. I ran into him years later in the cafeteria near Red Square at the University of Washington. I had moved to a house in the upper Snoqualmie Valley near the South Fork, and then to a house along the North Fork, and then to a house that was near freeways but not river forks. When I met him again, we recognized each other even though we had not seen each other since we were 10 on the soccer field at Fall City Elementary. He was a couple of years ahead of me because I had fallen a couple of years behind having gone into the military.

“Hi!” he said. “Do you remember me?”

“, I do,” I said. “How have you been? What’s happened?”

“, something happened before. I don’t know how to explain it.”

Strunk and White - Part 1

The sentence, look there is a kitty, has attention deficit disorder

  1. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.

AN ISSUE between me and clear communication — well a mumble, an inability to pronounce words, a rapidly stumbling cadence, and a post-impressionistic spelling damage the effort as well — is the parenthetical. In particularly the parenthetical in the parenthetical doesn’t help. This recursive depth folds and prevents any sort of straight transmission.

A problem for me is the convention of putting commas around parenthetical asides, it is, in fact, the temptation to put em dashes, parenthesis, a hyperlink to another page, because I find when I am writing that sentences come apart. I find a thought in a parenthetical aside. My mind jumps rather than wanders. The aside grows into a parenthetical paragraph. Gradually the sentences slide apart like a rock made of loose shale. I end up with a tiny pile of related concepts that are not in any sort of order except the associations I made to find them.

I know a writer who applies an easy-to-follow algorithm to her sentences to keep them in line. Put the most important sentence first, and then order each of them in order of importance with the one of greatest importance going first and then the ones of lesser importance coming afterward. In this way each paragraph attains order. Each sentence has a place, just like you get an order by shaking sediment in a jar of water.

A person reading the paragraph gets the important information first, and if they should die in the middle of reading the paragraph they will have retrieved the paragraph vitals upfront to carry with them into the afterlife or oblivion.

The parenthetical aside speaks to the problem of the multimodal mind working in trying to express itself in the single form of a sentence. The reader pulls pieces through this pinprick thin aperture, and them re-assembles a working thought in their own mind.

The Strunk and White idea of the parenthetical aside is that it is constructed, and layered into a sentence that has a singular purpose. A sentence in Strunk and White is thought made concrete. A sentence is a encapsulated object. A parenthetical aside in this contract ends up being a kind of footnote or addendum subordinate to the main thrust of the sentence. A writer places the strand of their thought into an envelope named the sentence. A parenthetical is like stuffing a pebble into the envelope before the writer mails it.

To think of a sentence as a thought made concrete is to think of the sentence as a thing like a chair. This is not the sentence as an act of the mind in motion, but rather the sentence as a thing that has been crafted.

For example, compare a paragraph by David Antin with a paragraph by E.B. White.

David Antin:


there are two sides to every story and to abbreviate one side is to diminish a side of a wall     creating an absence that is stronger than any presence and making any attempt at accurate construction hopeless sid luft is such an accusative absence      perhaps you have never had to address yourself to a wraith     to proceed adverbially naming effects as of the wind upon trees or Van der Waals forces on a surface     but sid luft was a test pilot     had flown grumman p 47’s called thunderbolts and twin-fuselaged p 38’s called lightnings     and thought it an agreeable task     his eye proceeding over the control panel checking the readings on all of the luminous dials     letting his ear discriminate among the complex series of metallic sounds that would allege a private relaxation     the way it takes the sharp eyes and quick ears of an astronaut to foresee a future failure in the allusion of a single dial     what is out there is altogether conjectural     that is the attraction that can take a smart boy out of his apartment and suspend him over an entire atmosphere     this applies also to arctic explorers whom also some bubble must arouse     let this be an attempt at assessment
— “Second Hundred Sid Luft,” David Antin (1971) See the link for proper spacing.)

Here is a celebrated paragraph by E.B. White in his essay on New York:

When I went down to lunch a few minutes ago I noticed that the man sitting next to me (about eighteen inches away along the wall) was Fred Stone. The eighteen inches were both the connection and the separation that New York provides for its inhabitants. My only connection with Fred Stone was that I saw him in the Wizard of Oz around the beginning of the century. But our waiter felt the same stimulus from being close to the man from Oz, and after Mr. Stone left the room the waiter told me that when he (the waiter) was a young man just arrived in this country and before he could understand a word of English, he had taken his girl for their first theater date in The Wizard of Oz. It was a wonderful show, the waiter recalled — a man of straw, a man of tin. Wonderful! (And still only eighteen inches away.) “Mr. Stone is a very hearty eater,” said the waiter throughfully, content with this fragile participating in destiny, this link with Oz.
— “Here is New York, E.B. White, ” (1949)

Both of these paragraphs, one presented as poetry but in fact a more primitive form, the sometimes-emergent non-genre form as it was called a few years ago, or prose poetry as it has also been called since Baudelaire. Antin is speaking and this is a transcription of his words. He is dramatizing the act of thinking and trying to force thought through the pinhole of the sentence. E.B. White writing in his chatty and chummy New Yorker style about New York has fussed the same process into an architected approximation of thought.

Both pieces capture the mind in motion and punctuation is inserted, periods and parenthesis in E.B. White, gaps in David Antin. Maybe this thing doesn’t indicate a pause, but rather a synaptic fire across the void connecting notions. The Elements of Style has not been applied fastidiously to E.B. White’s straight up prose piece but sits kind of adjacent to it, a lost grammatical Catholicism. There are fragments and isolated words. White begins a sentence with a conjunction (not a rule in the book, but still…), and so on. David Antin, in contrast, doesn’t even invite The Elements of Style to his party.

Where does the parenthetical exist in relation to these two pieces? The parenthetical in the training wheel sentence shows up to add additional, extraneous information, and yet in E.B. White pieces the entire paragraph becomes a unit of meaning, self-referential, the parenthetical being the flash that allows the writer to reference and loop what has been said, what will be said, moving closer to David Antin’s presentation of the voice as an articulation of an act of mind. A sequence of words can be the process of thought being re-enacted rather than thought made as concrete as a mosquito frozen in amber.

Strunk and White - Part 1

The Punctuation Tell

  1. In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.

OVER THE years there have been a number of typographic conventions that have acquired for me more meaning than their rational application.

They might be thought of as tribal markings. Their semantic meaning is tied up more in identifying the user of the mark as someone who belongs to my tribe (and correspondingly my membership to that tribe). The lack of the mark indicates someone who does not belong, an outsider, a pretender, a faux user of punctuation.

For example, if I find myself in the presence of someone who insists that two spaces must follow a terminal punctuation mark, typically phrased as “two spaces after a period,” I say carefully when I first notice this, unsure how they will take it, that this is not really the convention. “A computer is not a typewriter.”

You are free to never invite me to any dinner parties, ever.

On this first statement, I struggle to keep the tone of the holier-than-thou pedant out of my voice. I’m aware that if I am aware I must struggle to keep the holier-than-thou tone out of my voice has doomed my voice to a holier-than-thou tone in my voice and it is moments like this that I become very sick of myself and wish I could be someone else. I wish I could mainly someone else because I am tired of myself.

About the single space after a period I am righteous. This is indistinguishable from being sanctimonious.

“You do know, don’t you, you should know, you should know like you know how to breathe and how to urinate that there is only a single space after a period, don’t you? If you don’t, I don’t trust you to operate various basic biological systems. You should probably be on life support right now.”

When in fact this matter of canonical, typographic law is relatively new. The idea that just because a document is written in a proportional typeface capable of being typeset, that such document is, in fact, typeset, is wrong. Typesetting requires some degree of skill.

A quality typefaces may include values stored in the typeface to make it look better when a machine lays it out, but a beautifully typeset page is like a beautifully set wall of bricks. Only an experienced artisan, trained, apprenticed, and seasoned by work and failure can produce such as a wall, such a page of type. For the rest of us, what does it matter if there is a single space or two spaces or even three spaces? It doesn’t matter a lick.

Even so, the machines lay bricks well enough. Algorithms do a consistently okay job. It only takes a few glances at the standard job work of a typesetter from the era before computerized typesetting, back in the 1950s or earlier to see that things typesetters will call out: rivers, unseemly gapes after terminal punctuation, even oddly hyphenated words, are the rule rather than the exception. Manual typesetting from the good old days is not really all that is cracked up to be.

This work was like all work, was good enough. The people doing it were at their job doing their work day after day and were not creating art. They were putting metal in slots on a page and it was a skilled enough job that you couldn’t just replace them, and the pages of type were not perfect. They were just good enough that the typesetter wasn’t fired. A reader of newspapers and mass market books wasn’t going to be not read the news or page-turner because of rivers in his typeset pages.

It appears that the rule was a gap of at least an em after terminal punctuation. This new standard of a single en after a period is new. The convention has changed.

That this convention is malleable speaks to one of the fundamental problems of the grammar pedant. Such a person — and I have been such a person and sometimes am such a person — is basing their moral position on a tissue of half-truths, half-stories, rapidly changing conventions, and mostly “I say so”s.

Language shifts. Technology alters language since in fact, language itself is a technology, and recursively, written language is a technology of that technology, and a digital file using UTF-8 is a technology of a technology, and so on.

Which brings us back to the moral superiority of the Oxford comma vs the AP Style comma. Newspapers avoided the terminal comma in a list of items. Presumably, this is so to save on commas in the typecase of typesetter or maybe the ink. Or maybe this wasn’t the case. Maybe they did this just because. No one really knows. A comma separating each item in the list seems rational to me, yet it is still just a convention, and therefore it is just a decision on which some people agree. The person who does this inconsistently is not a poor communicator, much less a typographical deviant. They are merely inconsistent.

I know a woman who adores the Oxford comma rule. She identifies with it like her hair. She is a brunette with curly hair. She will only date men, and of these men, they must pass the first test: they must use the Oxford comma. If they send her a text message without an Oxford comma, they are out. Her romantic interests are hemmed in by her adherence to a particulate set of typographic conventions.

We need rules, don’t we? To not have language rules, like spelling, for instance, would lead to confusion and chaos…. and yet central texts of modern English such as the King James Bible, everything Shakespeare wrote, Paradise Lost came from an era in which there was not standardized spelling, much less rule as precise as the Oxford comma.

A sentence is a complete thought, we say, and written language is thought made tangible. If our thoughts are the manifestation of the ineffable substance of what we are, then our own writing is as close to a snapshot of this as possible. Our prose style reveals more than a selfie.

Written language is an expression of our humanity.

For some reason, we set this against technology, as if technology is inhuman. Technology is in fact of a kind of superset of humanity. It is a limited and pared down reflection of how we sometimes think we ought to be. We ought to be precise. We ought to be consistent. We should, therefore, express our thoughts in our technology of written language in terms of completely grammatical sentences using consistent spelling.

Shouldn’t we?

The committee that wrote the King James Bible, however, or William Shakespeare or John Milton didn’t strive to be consistent. They strove to express their humanity in written language. Yet, they did not strive to be machines.

A good speller is admirable because they are closer to machines. I, on the other hand, admire what is human and that is to error, to babble, to not make sense, to struggle with the act of expression. I prefer the Oxford comma, but if I was dating I would be more concerned with a person’s humanity than to their adherence to Strunk and White.

Strunk and White in this context is a tribal text. It carries with it the code of how to belong to the tribe. It is a turn of the last century Preppy Handbook. Through E.B. White it became the underlying style guide to The New Yorker, a tribe whose membership included James Thurber, John Updike, Dorothy Parker, the Algonkian Round Table, and continued through Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, Adam Gopnik.

But really I think you can think what you want and put a comma anywhere you like. Someone somewhere will probably understand you.

Strunk and White - Part 1

The Lumberjack’s Pregnancy

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

lumberjackpregaxI LEARNED the formation of possessives in second grade at Fall City Elementary school in the Snoqualmie Valley. I can’t recall if I knew them in the first grade. I can’t recall being taught them in the third grade.

In second grade, I sat in a classroom at the west side of the school that looked over the lawn without any playground equipment that went for a quarter of a mile to a chain link fence and then the Fall City — Redmond Road.

We learned that a thing, a noun, when it owned something else would be attached to that thing with a possessive s joined by an oddly disjointed mark at the top of the page like a comma filled with helium that had drifted above the line of the sentence like an escaped balloon.

I loved the formation of this syntax because you could give things to any other thing. A bridge could have a cow: the bridge’s cow. You could give a man, a lumberjack, and a pregnancy: the lumberjack’s pregnancy.

Miss Black taught the class. She was a young teacher who had recently joined the school. At eight years of age, the idea of who was new or who was old was irrelevant to me. All of the adults of the school seemed as if they had always been there. My kindergarten teachers had been an old couple who were wizened, had German names, and wore fussy clothes. The man wore polished black oxfords, ironed slacks, a white button down, and greenish cardigans. The woman wore black skirts, brown stockings that may have been meant to evoke a kind of skin color but instead looked like a kind of mesh on her legs to keep them together, and a somewhat lacy and silky shirt.

They were patient and orderly and had a kind of careful and deliberate agenda in their class. The woman reminded me of a grandmother from the Brother’s Grimm, the old woman in Hansen and Gretel, only she had a husband. They could have been in the Wizard of Oz. They were kindly like grandparents and at the same time would show us the shapes and make us create books.

We spent most of our time in that class making things. We would learn our shapes and then make our shapes. We would learn this or that and then make something that was this or that.

Four times a day whether we had to go the bathroom or not we would be ushered int the hallway on the speckled linoleum floors under a heavy chrome clock. We would line up and walk in a line like ducks to the bathroom where we would go in by threes and do our business and then come back out to the line and then walk back to the classroom to learn about and make something else. I loved the routine, the order, and making things.

Miss Black, in contrast, wore the kind of clothes you would see on people in Seattle. She wore a V neck sweater over an Oxford shirt with pointy collars. In the mornings before class, she had the radio on one of the stations my parents listened to and I could hear John Denver, Joni Mitchell, or James Taylor songs that my mom liked and my dad hated.

“Joni Mitchell is jazz,” my father said. Jazz was crap. Rock was good.

As soon as the kids arrived she would turn off the radio and then she would assume the role of teacher, friendly and firm, a litany of rules and knowledge and evaluation. At the time I didn’t have any sense that rules and knowledge and emulation were separate things just like I only had a foggy sense that a paragraph was made of sentences, sentences of words, and words of letters. I knew my alphabet. I could count to a hundred. I could write a sentence and I knew it was a sentence, more or less. But I did not know what it was made of.

Miss Black’s classroom was on this hallway by the bathroom. In Miss Black’s classroom we would have to announce we wanted to go to the bathroom by raising our hand, and then Miss Black would give us the hallway pass. It was a large piece of laminated pink construction paper that had been decorated with pointy stars.

At first, I wondered about the stars. There were more than five points. Five points were supposed to be a star. These stars had twelve points. The pass said in a beautiful script I could barely read, Bathroom Pass. We hadn’t learned cursive yet, and so I knew it said this because that it was it was and I could recognize the B and the P. I would sometimes ask to use the bathroom just so I could get my hands on the pass and inspect it.

We could only go one at a time.

School was a sequence of conventions and order. Even how we spoke had an order. We must raise our hands and not interrupt. And we could only speak if we were called on. I would raise my hand and wait, and in Miss Black’s class rarely get called on. After a while, I stopped raising my hand. If I really needed to say something — and I always needed to say something — I would say it.

Sometimes I would get a soft scolding. “We must raise our hands and be called on if we would like to contribute to the discussion,” Miss Black said.

When Miss Black said that to form a possessive you use “apostrophe S“, this was an iron-clad concept. The apostrophe would go outside of the S when the noun was plural. Nouns were a single thing, like a bird, or multiple things like birds. A bird could also be a singular thing, a bird, and plural like a flock, but a flock was a singular thing that had many members like a paragraph or an engine. So a flock that had something like a pregnancy would be the flock’s pregnancy even though it was plural. It wasn’t really plural I learned later but a collective noun. It was a singular collective noun. This was and is confusing. So it would get a single apostrophe S. Miss Black’s instruction was unambiguous and exact. She didn’t address the insanity of a flock’s pregnancy.

Exceptions would be advanced. For the first three years of my education, I rose my hand if I wanted to be called on. And I learned that numbers matched things: there was one apple and two apples and three apples and so on. And I learned that a sentence had a subject and a predicate. A singular noun owned something if it had an apostrophe S and plural noun owned something if it was S apostrophe.

Yet here on page one of the legendary Strunk and White on the very first rule, I encounter exceptions and this is where any prospective rule in natural language fails:

the rule applies unless it doesn’t apply.

It is often said about language rules that rules are made to be broken. Except that isn’t the case. The police do not look kindly on exceptions to the law. Gravity applies to every apple on every tree.

Unless it doesn’t.

Here such a simple concept founders in the presence of ancient proper names ending in “-es and -is.” Strunk does not explain what this means, ancient proper names. At six my German kindergarten teachers were ancient. I lived in an ancient forest. I lived in an ancient world filled with ancient things. On the weekends we went to thrift stores filled with ancient junk. The word ancient is a relative term. Ancient to what?

At eight years of age everything under the sun, even my dog, was ancient.

Yet Strunk wouldn’t have seen the word ancient as ambiguous at all. For him ancient would mean something from antiquity and meant a specific period of history beginning before the Birth of Christ, or the year zero and going back to The Dawn of Civilization, essentially meaning the advent agriculture in the Middle East around 5,000 BCE. Antiquity would encompass the Sumerians, the account in the Old Testament, the Egyptians, Greek, and then early Roman History.

And yet that isn’t completely what he means because he is writing a grammar book for English. He means specifically the conventions used by the end of the Victorian Era to reference the world of zero to 5,000 BCE. And it is even more specific than because the typographic conventions of the Victorian Age by the time of Edward the IV when the book was written has been reformed and simplified, primarily by technology — by the shift from handwritten clerks in offices to clerks that used the typewriter. Many of the punctuation marks had been implied for use with the typewriter even if they were being written by hand — and this simplification is reflected in Strunk and White.

The word ancient itself is a nit in the otherwise seemingly seamless and sensible fabric of Strunk and White that if you begin to pull on it unravels into you are no longer holding professor Strunk’s cardigan but a pile of crooked wool.

What I find so irritating on page one as an adult, the seemingly direct and unambiguous imperative was something that as a child I desperately needed. I needed the order of the hallway. I required the definition of conceptual objects such as triangle, cones, sentences, the rules of grammar, the Bathroom Pass. Raise your hand before you ask a question.

I lift my hand. But alone in my office at 46, there isn’t anyone here to answer. And if they did, I would say, “Get out of my house.”

About Burn Strunk

Burn Strunk, Burn


As a child, the phrase a picture is worth a thousand words made no sense to me. A picture was a maddening literal thing, a nearly concrete thing like a river stone worn smooth in the river, a chunk of firewood, the body of a blue beetle opened in the dusty gravel.

A picture didn’t need words. A picture didn’t conceal words. A picture was simply what it was.

This is the contention of Thomas Wolf’s The Painted Word, that modern art had become an illustration of art criticism and so was somehow compromised, degraded by the words associated with the painting. The words connected in this way to an object become somehow dishonest.

A picture wasn’t worth a thousand words: a picture’s value was that it was not words. A drawing belonged to a different domain even if it was made of marks on a page. I drew long before I could write anything. I was an observer long before I was a reader.

A word, on the other hand, is worth a thousand words. Each word can unfold into thousands of words. Each of those words can unfold to a thousand words, and so on.

A sentence becomes the seed for a text like the seeds used in procedurally generated worlds like Minecraft or No Man’s Sky.

I can write by writing a sentence and unfolding a sentence over and over again like I am traveling through a maze that generates itself with each choice of left or right. I cannot find the end of the maze but rather abandoned myself to the endlessly productive capacity of language.

Words contain the capacity like mothers and fathers and life to make more of themselves. A picture in comparison is inert, bound by the margins of the sheet of paper, the canvas, the cave wall. Even the meaning of the picture requires this leap to text. When you tell someone about your trip to the museum to the look at Matisse, you do not draw them a picture. Instead, you tell them a story.

The magic of reading was it took what I had thought was only in my head, this stream of myself telling myself the story of what I had seen, and suddenly there was the story of what someone else had seen somewhere else.

The voice in my head was not my own voice, but another person’s voice. I had been alone in the world. Eyes and ears. Listening to people talk to me. Copying what they were saying. Recombining what I had heard into something new.

Under this picture on the cover of the book, there were these sheets of marks that didn’t look like anything – a page of prose doesn’t look like anything except a kind of uniform coloring of the page to make it look kind of gray. The gray marks unspool, fold, refold when you can read the voice of Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Charles Manson, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Wise Brown, someone else somewhere else is thinking thoughts in my head I have never thought before.

I began to read late. My wife and daughter both taught themselves to read and do not remember a time when store signs were just abstract drawings.

My initial experience learning to write spans learning to read. The written word like the spoken word seemed inadequate to explain my experience much less represent my experience. The language I was learning to write was mired in convention and that these conventions ultimately 100% arbitrary.

Burn Strunk is a series of posts where I plan to revisit the rules in the classic style book, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. The tiny yellow book has endured for more than a hundred years; the book has proven to be as immune to progress as the common cold. Because of the brevity, clarity, and seemingly sensible authority of E.B. White, the book is often presented as the rules of writing. If you believe that a sentence is thought made tangible, this series of posts is an attempt resist Professor Strunk’s mind control.