Every once in a while, I pull down my copy of that ancient bible of good writing The Elements of Style by Strunk & White, a somewhat frail paperback edition published in 1959. To me, the little book’s Rule 13 says it all: “Omit needless words.”
Prof. Strunk’s concise essay on the principal requirements of plain English was copyrighted in 1918. The essayist E. B. White, a friend and contemporary of James Thurber when they slaved away at the “New Yorker” back in the Thirties, had been a student of Strunk’s at Cornell. He revised and updated the text and added a chapter on style.
All this brings to mind old Mrs. Gandersnoot, my sixth-grade teacher. She was a Grammar Nazi, wielding her inflexible requirements over our little cow-licked heads like a steel ruler. I am grateful for her strictness today but, at the time, she could seem a little harsh to a twelve-year- old boy daydreaming about less restrictive activity.
Mrs. Gandersnoot hated the word WHICH. To her mind, it was almost always an unnecessary word, a word utilized by weak and undisciplined writers. She must have been a student of Prof. Strunk or, if not a direct disciple, at least a descendent. Don’t use the word, she would dictate; eliminate it; break your sentence down; use two sentences if you must, but forget the word which, it is sloppy and tends to be an enemy of conciseness.
I’ll never forget the day that I got in trouble in Mrs. Gandersnoot’s classroom. We had all just handed in our homework assignment, a short essay on why the Friday paper drive was an important activity. She set us to reading the next chapter of our English workbook while she sat at her desk at the front of the room reading and grading our essays. I could see that she had her red pencil in hand, whipping it across the lined pages of our work like a stiletto. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw me say something to the kid next to me.
“Yes, Ma’am.” I was sure my Adam’s apple was throbbing in tumult.
“What did you say?” Her soft blue eyes glinted through her steel-rimmed spectacles.
“You heard me. What did you say to Timmy just now? Come on, speak up so that we can all hear you.”
She had used this tactic on students in the past and I knew that I was had. There was no way I could escape. This would not be over until I announced to her and the rest of the class what had been my sotto voce comment to Timmy. I gathered my nerve, swallowed hard, and took my medicine.
“I said… ‘She’s on a WHICH hunt.’ “