Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Strunk and White: lesson 1 THE SERIAL COMMA

In the wake of the Francine Prose book many other books have come thumping through my letter-box, many of them only available from the U.S.


The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is one of these. I am going to endeavour to learn something from this every day in order to improve my style.

Today I learnt that there is such a thing as a 'serial comma'. I didn't know this. It comes in a list of three or more terms with a single conjunction e.g. red, white, and blue.

But not in the names of firms e.g. David, Foster and Wallace.

15 Comments:

Blogger Lee said...

I'm very curious how you get on with S & W. Is it just another of those **!* rulebooks or genuinely helpful? I've never seen a copy and wonder if it's worth buying?

At the moment what I'm doing about style is copying and recopying and recopying effective/affective passages of prose.

Wed Jan 30, 08:00:00 am  
Anonymous Clare said...

Well Lee. one thing about is it is pocket-sized (this is a mixed blessing for me...OK I can carry it everywhere but since I work mainly at my desk this is not a great advantage) and another thing is that is it very clear. This, for me, is more important. My education in basic grammar is not very strong and I struggle with names for words. I keep trying but they don't seem to stick. So far I've understood everything I've read, and the examples are good. Maybe it is too early for me to heartily recommend - but Francine Prose and a lot of other people do, of course...

Wed Jan 30, 08:32:00 am  
OpenID martinkirk said...

Clare, this is sometimes called The Oxford Comma. Colin Dexter uses it all the time in his books, articles, and crossword clues.....

Wed Jan 30, 11:59:00 am  
Anonymous Clare said...

Hi Martin, thank you! Have never heard of this!

Wed Jan 30, 01:01:00 pm  
OpenID Petrona said...

Debra is very into these commas, we have had quite a debate about it on Petrona in the past, so I expect she will be heading on over here soon.
Strunk and White is one of those bibles of style, I recall. (Can it beat Hart's Rules, though?)
From our Author and Reviewers' website at http://www.nature.com/authors/author_services/how_write.html:
"The classic book Elements of Style by William J. Strunk, Jr (Humphrey, New York, 1918) is now published by Bartleby.com (New York, 1999) and is freely available on the web in searchable format."
http://www.bartleby.com/141/

Wed Jan 30, 07:01:00 pm  
Blogger jem said...

When I first started writing creatively I took a course to try to help / encourage me - I told my tutor I was very worried about my poor use of grammar, punctuation etc. He told me not to worry unduly but suggested this book. I read it, took it in, but didn't really incorporate it into my writing. I just prefer to muddle by, hopefully making the message outshine the last of appropriate dots and dashes on the page.

Wed Jan 30, 07:53:00 pm  
Anonymous Clare said...

Thanks, Petrona - I'm very glad it's available on the internet - much easier to leaf through electronically. I think I remember that debate, now you mention it...

Wed Jan 30, 10:54:00 pm  
Anonymous Clare said...

Yes, Jem - I think I'll end up doing that too. Grammar tends to perplex me a bit and I worry about it getting in the way...strait-jacketing me somewhat I suppose or an awareness of style inhibiting style, perhaps...but then again I have been criticised for being too free - my 'verbless sentences' were derided in one newspaper, I remember.

Wed Jan 30, 10:58:00 pm  
Blogger Dave Lull said...

Clare, you might find this posting and the related comments (for example, "Yes, I prefer economy too - in all aspects of writing") at Petrona worth (re)reading: Horses for courses.

Thu Jan 31, 04:58:00 am  
Blogger Lee said...

One critic's derision is another's Man Booker prize.

Thu Jan 31, 06:58:00 am  
Anonymous Clare said...

Heh, Dave - I wonder who could have said that? Interesting though, because you (and the rest of that discussion) remind me that elsewhere in her book someone (but not Prose herself, I think) says that for good style nouns and verbs should not carry more than one adjective or adverb... which would make this comma redundant anyway, perhaps.

Thu Jan 31, 07:33:00 am  
Blogger Dave Lull said...

Isaac Babel: "If you can't find the right adjective for a noun, leave it alone. Let the noun stand by itself. A comparison must be as accurate as a slide rule, and as natural as the smell of fennel . . . . I take out all the participles and adverbs I can . . . . Adverbs are lighter. They can even lend you wings in a way. But too many of them make the language spineless . . . . A noun needs only one adjective, the choicest. Only a genius can afford two adjectives to one noun . . . ."

Francine Prose, Reading like a writer (Harper Perennial, 2007), page 264.

Thu Jan 31, 01:47:00 pm  
Anonymous Clare. said...

Exactly! Thank you Dave.

Thu Jan 31, 01:54:00 pm  
Blogger Aerielle Windwhisper said...

Strunk and White is, as an earlier posted suggested, the bible of basic English style, grammar, and usage in the United States. The first edition was published by Strunk alone in 1918; the second edition, authored by Strunk and White, came out in 1959 and has been required reading of almost every college freshman in the US ever since. Even in its current, 4th edition, Strunk and White remains concise, straightforward, and useful. The classic is still the king!

Fri Jan 30, 04:07:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, I agree. Thanks Ms Windwhisperer.

Mon Feb 02, 02:55:00 pm  

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