Tag Archives: Strunk and White The Elements of Style

C plus Stein and purple prose



The following is an excerpt from my post:













In my freshman year at Brandeis University, I took English Composition. For our first assignment, we were told to write a paper in which we were instructed to “define style,” which I tried mightily to do. (I didn’t quite understand what underlay the assignment.) In the next class, the instructor singled out my paper for criticism. I thought it was pretty good, and one or two other students in the class (notably Ricardo Millett, an exchange student from Panama who went on to have a distinguished academic career) felt so too.

In the paper, I quoted a passage from The Crisis of Our Age by the Russian-American sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin as an example of what I considered an excellent, distinctive style. I had recently discovered Sorokin’s works and greatly admired them:

The crisis is here in all its stark and unquestionable reality. We are in the midst of an enormous conflagration burning everything into ashes. In a few weeks millions of human lives are uprooted; in a few hours century-old cities are demolished; in a few days kingdoms are erased. Red human blood flows in broad streams from one end of the earth to the other. Ever expanding misery spreads its gloomy shadow over larger eras. The fortunes, happiness and comfort of untold millions have disappeared. Peace, security and safety have vanished. Prosperity and well-being have become in many countries but a memory; freedom a mere myth. Western culture is covered by a blackout. A great tornado sweeps over the whole of mankind. (P. A. Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age, pp. 14-15. Note: the book was published at the beginning of World War II.)

The instructor, Robert Stein (a chain smoker known to students as “C plus Stein”), read the passage out loud in class and pounced on me for making such a claim. He drew a red line through my paper and wrote something like “No!” in the margin. Purple prose, he said. Exactly the opposite of excellence of style.

The freshman comp Bible in those days was Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Sorokin would probably have had difficulty passing a course of theirs. I was taken aback by Stein’s criticisms and his take on Sorokin the writer.



 — Roger W. Smith

    January 2019

regarding Professor Strunk’s admonition, “Omit Needless Words.” (or, are long, complex sentences bad?)




Should long, complex sentences be considered, a priori, evidence of bad writing? Ask Samuel Johnson. Or practically any other great writer one can think of.

Sometimes the shortest sentences can be extremely powerful: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

But, note what Professor Brooks Landon has to say in his lecture ““Grammar and Rhetoric” (lecture 2, “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft”; The Great Courses/The Teaching Company).




… unless the situation demands otherwise, sentences that convey more information are more effective than those that convey less. Sentences that anticipate and answer more questions that a reader might have are better than those that answer fewer questions. Sentences that bring ideas and images into clearer focus by adding more useful details and explanation are generally more effective than those that are less clearly focused and that offer fewer details. In practice, this means that I generally value longer sentences over shorter sentences as long as the length accomplishes some of those important goals I’ve just mentioned.

Many of us have been exposed over the years to the idea that effective writing is simple and direct, a term generally associated with Strunk and White’s legendary guidebook The Elements of Style, or we remember some of the slogans from that book, such as, “Omit needless words.” … [Stunk concluded] with this all important qualifier: “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 he make every word tell.” … Strunk’s concern is specifically with words and phrases that do not add propositions to the sentence [e.g., “owing to the fact that” instead of “since”].”

… simple does not mean simplistic. Direct does not mean short. And, simple and direct does not mean that we should all write like Ernest Hemingway in a hurry. “Omit needless words” is great advice, but not when it gets reduced to the belief that shorter is always better, or that “needless” means any word without which the sentence can still make sense.

… I like Faulkner, as well as I like Hemingway. And, I’d like to believe that even Professor Will Strunk and certainly E. B. White would not have tried to edit Faulkner out of existence.

… Strunk and White do a great job of reminding us to avoid needless words, but they don’t begin to consider all of the ways in which more words might actually be needed. … in many cases, we need to add words to improve our writing … rather than trying to pare our writing down to some kind of telegraphic minimum.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   July 2017







from Wikipedia




Jesus wept (Greek: ἐδάκρυσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς, edákrysen o Iesoús lit. “Jesus shed tears”) is a phrase famous for being the shortest verse in the King James Version of the Bible, as well as many other versions. It is not the shortest in the original languages. It is found in the Gospel of John, chapter 11, verse 35.

This verse occurs in John’s narrative of the death of Lazarus of Bethany, a follower of Jesus. Lazarus’ sisters – Mary and Martha – sent word to Jesus of their brother’s illness and impending death, but Jesus arrived four days after Lazarus died. Jesus, after talking to the grieving sisters and seeing Lazarus’ friends weeping, was deeply troubled and moved.