Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How to end a sentence with five prepositions -- leave it to E. B. White

I've been enjoying dipping my toes in the Letters of E. B. White, Revised Edition. It's fascinating watching the evolution of books like "Stuart Little," "Charlotte's Web" and "Elements of Style" ("Strunk & White") in the letters of this much-loved and engaging American writer. His letters have the wit and grace and humanity of the long-time New Yorker writer, combined with the ease and playfulness of a natural-born letter writer. You can start on virtually any page and find a mini-essay that will knock your socks off.

There are some amusing letters to his "Elements of Style" editor at Macmillan, J. G. Case. They wrangled a bit, because White thought Case wanted him to soften up Strunk's words too much for modern audiences. White felt he had to draw the line.
I am used to being edited, I like being edited, and I have had the good luck and the pleasure of having been edited by some of the best of them, but I have never been edited for wind direction, and will not be now. Either Macmillan takes Strunk and me in our bare skins, or I want out. -- p. 416
Later, after the book's surprising success, White's playful side comes out in a very short letter to Case.
The next grammar book I bring out I want to tell how to end a sentence with five prepositions. A father of a little boy goes upstairs after supper to read to his son, but he brings the wrong book. The boy says, "What did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to out of up for?" -- p. 447
The book is a poignant reminder of what we may be losing in the analog to digital transition from dead tree books and letters to Kindles and e-mails. With a very useful index, the book is 713 pages long. And that's 713 pages that probably wouldn't be available to us, had White been writing in the age of e-mail.

Had he used e-mail, his letters would have been different and no doubt much more terse and businesslike. His style seemed to require the open space of a sheet of paper, some room on the page to roam about and play. Even if he had adapted to e-mail, most of his messages would probably have been lost. Few writers print out their e-mails, and if they select a few to save, their choices are probably different from what a future editor would select. And as for e-mails not saved on paper -- good luck.

It's a problem. Are you listening, Google? Meanwhile, we can escape from these worries to a more leisurely time when communication was less ephemeral, and the slower pace of conversation by mail allowed writers time to craft a nice turn of phrase rather than dashing off a few words on the keyboard and hitting send.

1 comment:

Jack Barry said...

Why all the attention to syllables that are at the front end of words, and no attention to syllables that end a word.... that is.... Postpositions . ???

What about words that have no existence, except as when they are qualified... To wit:

"feck" does not exist, but ... feckless is common. ... and so on...

jack barry