Code, Refactoring, Communication, and The Art of Personal Expression - or - What Strunk and White Don't Get

by M. David Peterson

Update: As I pointed out in a follow-up comment to Woof, one of the things I absolutely love about blogging is that is encourages interaction and communication on important subject matter that would otherwise not take place if the medium did not exist. Often times I find myself having to reevaluate my position on any given subject matter because someone has forced me to do just that via a blog post they've written or via a follow-up comment to one of my own blog posts. Such is the case I am currently faced with,

But I groan over this particular post because you generally attack rules of clear writing, which is all S&W (and others like them) are trying to promote, with a class of "hey, man, WHO'S TO TELL ME" middle-fingered hubris.


Of course, as I pointed out in another follow-up,

Put this way your position becomes quite a bit more clear. And I can't help but agree with your point.


... which is absolutely the situation I am currently left pondering. That doesn't mean I believe the content of this post is no longer relevant, and instead that there is certainly more to this than meets the eye, a fact of which is forcing me to reevaluate my overall position.

Of course, life could be worse. I could go around thinking that my viewpoints were always and without a doubt the correct viewpoints and that everyone else who disagreed was, in fact, wrong. If there is one thing I have learned in life it's that you don't *ever* want to be "that guy."

Thanks for helping me realize the flaws in my argument, Woof! Still thinking through this a bit, but once I have I'll provide a follow-up comment with the results of my reevaluation.

Update: via Piers Hollot we have ourselves a new quote-of-the-day, week, month, and possibly even year,

To their credit, messrs Strunk and White had no way of knowing that semicolons, hyphens and parentheses could also function as winking faces.


*YES*! :D Thanks for the laugh, Piers! :D

[Original Post]
Coding Horror: Google's Number One UI Mistake

Strunk and White urged us to Omit Needless Words:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. 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 every word tell.


If you were to ask me who I believe to be the greatest writer of our era, that answer would be immediate and definitive,

Tom Robbins

Of course I doubt Strunk and White would agree. "Too wordy. Too much personal expression. Too much social and political undercurrent. Too much. Too much. TOO MUCH!" would of course be five too many too's for Strunk and White's liking.

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.


Of course if this were truly the case, there would be no need for erasers. In fact, there would be no need for pencils. Everything would simply be written in permanent ink.

In the same sense, there would be no need for code refactoring tools and there would only be one programming language. I mean, why mess around with Ruby or Python when you can write everything in assembly, or better yet, machine!

Hell, for that matter there would probably only be one spoken language if Strunk and White had things their way. Why waste our time describing things differently than someone else when it's much more efficient to describe them exactly the same way as everyone else? With such efficiency we could spend less of our time communicating and more of our time...

-- doing --

... Hmmm, I don't know... Staring at the wall? Watching the paint dry? Or would the paint already be dry in such a world? For that matter, why even paint the wall! What's wrong with the wall the way it was in the first place?! In fact, why do we even have walls! It's just wasted space!

Of course, in an efficient world such as this that has no need for walls and with such efficiency in our written and spoken languages I'm not exactly sure what we do with our time. But we'd have plenty of time to do whatever it is we wouldn't be doing, that's for certain! ;-)

Hey Strunk and White**, here's some elements for your style: As hard as it would obviously be to actually submit to, go to your local library or favorite offline or online retailer and pick up a Tom Robbins novel. I'd personally recommend Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas or Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates. Then again, Jitterbug Perfume or Skinny Legs and All are both excellent works of literary art, as are each and every one of his other titles.

Oh, and while you're at it, take a week off and go visit the Louvre. It's a beautiful, wonderful, and thought provoking place filled with LOTS and LOTS of lines. No, not those kinds of lines. These kind,



--

** Yes, I'm aware of the fact that William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White are both dead.

NOTE: I should also point out that I have always found,

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 every word tell.


... to be a pathetic attempt at saving face. By who's definition makes the determination as to what words are necessary to *tell* a story, and what words are not? Theirs? Yours? Mine? Which, of course, in and of itself is the entire point,

One mans trash is another womans treasure. This same rule can be applied to *ANYTHING* and *EVERYTHING*. If you don't like it. Don't read it. But don't tell others how to define what is trash and what is treasure...

*They* can make that determination on *their* own.

17 Comments

Micah Dubinko
2007-07-30 21:27:10
Uh, David, on the topic of omitting needless words, you are hardly in a position to criticize... ;-) -m
M. David Peterson
2007-07-31 00:11:25
@Micah,


And thanks for helping to prove my point... ;-)


No criticism here: I am 100% okay with leaving as many words as I feel necessary to describe my position. I like words. I think they're neat. :D

M. David Peterson
2007-07-31 00:13:23
@Micah,


BTW.. how are ya? Haven't heard from you in a while? Been quiet on the blog front I've noticed. Got something cooking over there @ Y! that you wanna tell the rest of us about? ;-) :D

piers
2007-07-31 08:53:19
To their credit, messrs Strunk and White had no way of knowing that semicolons, hyphens and parentheses could also function as winking faces.
M. David Peterson
2007-07-31 10:28:14
@Piers,


To their credit, messrs Strunk and White had no way of knowing that semicolons, hyphens and parentheses could also function as winking faces.


*THAT ROCKS*!!! :D We've got ourselves our quote of the day, week, month, and (possibly year) ;-) :D

James
2007-07-31 11:07:20
Such anger... As kid, did someone beat you with an Elements of Style?


A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.


Of course if this were truly the case, there would be no need for erasers. In fact, there would be no need for pencils. Everything would simply be written in permanent ink.


Come on, that doesn't even make sense. They're saying that sentences should be edited to remove the unnecessary, not that sentences, by natural law, spring forth taut and fully formed from the writer's mind.


More importantly, Strunk and White never claimed to have the sole set of rules for all English prose anywhere. They are at best guidelines, and they say so themselves. I don't think they made any claim over art, and even if they did, as you say, art is about breaking the rules - even the ones that are usually good. The virtue that they worship is not efficiency, but clarity.


I don't know much about Robbins or his writing process, but I'll bet that his first drafts had plenty of unnecessary words that he later scratched out with his pen (or eraser). It's just that in the context of a literary novel, which is communicating emotional connotations at least as much as literal denotations, the criteria for "necessary" is completely and rightly different, and not always obvious.


Like the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button. Google, with the simplest interface of all search engines, has probably spent a lot of thought about whether that button is strictly necessary, and determined that yes, it is. Not because x percentage of people use it. But because it communicates the idea that Google's search is so good that you could, if you wanted, place blind confidence that the first result is the right result. Different definition of "necessary" - but no less valid. And one that Strunk and White - if they saw the efficient and clear communication of that single button - might actually approve of.


So defend that button, but not by ranting about the glories of the messy and inefficient. Doesn't make sense.

piers
2007-07-31 11:59:43
Quote of the week has to go to Lawrence Lessig, in response to a heckler:


"oh come on, 3bm. lighten up. This is a post bragging about my kid."


http://lessig.org/blog/2007/06/my_cover_is_totally_blown_my_p.html

M. David Peterson
2007-07-31 13:25:17
@James,


> Such anger... As kid, did someone beat you with an Elements of Style?


Naw. It was an Oxford Dictionary ;-)


I'm in a meeting at the moment so can't respond in full at the moment, but you bring out a lot of great points, something of which I will expound upon later this evening.


thanks for taking the time to comment!

piers
2007-08-01 09:14:18
Ummm... didn't it turn out that Strunk and White's efforts to standardize written english were actually funded by microsoft bribes, or am I getting my rumours confused?
M. David Peterson
2007-08-02 14:06:25
@piers,


>> Ummm... didn't it turn out that Strunk and White's efforts to standardize written english were actually funded by microsoft bribes, or am I getting my rumours confused? <<


Close. What actually happened is that Microsoft attempted to "bribe" Rick Jelliffe into rewriting "Elements of Style" using nothing but MSFT-based three-letter-acronyms. Of course, their eveel plan was thwarted when Jelliffe decided to "get the public's opinion on the matter" and blogged about the attempted "bribery". Lucky for us the Internet Police sprung into action and ensured a world filled with perfect MSFT-free grammar could continue forward unimpeded.


Thank goodness, is all I have to say. ;-)

M. David Peterson
2007-08-02 15:42:01
@James,


I have to run out the door again, but wanted to quickly respond to,


Come on, that doesn't even make sense. They're saying that sentences should be edited to remove the unnecessary, not that sentences, by natural law, spring forth taut and fully formed from the writer's mind.


I recognize the fact that they are referring to the editing process. However, the reason I feel that Strunk and White take things to the extreme has to do with their follow-up point-of-comparison,


for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.


To me this is the point in which they showcase their misunderstanding of the art of the creative process. By who's definition determines if a line or a part is unnecessary? Furthermore perspective has a lot more to do with the reasoning for the existence of any given item than they seem to be willing to allow room for. How many times have you read a book only to read it again to discover something you didn't notice the first go round? Words have perspective just as anything else has perspective. By taking a "this should not be here unless it's absolute necessary" removes from the art of writing the ability to provide depth, and to me anyway it's the depth of a book that determines its real long term value.


Have to head out for a bit, but will follow-up again a bit later with a response to your other points (which are all very good points, btw... just want to extend things with a bit more depth to help provide some perspective ;-)

Woof
2007-08-03 11:31:09
Oh, dude.


Your post falls depressingly in the school of thought which informs us that in writing, everything is fair game. "One man's trash is another woman's treasure." Ugh. This kind of stuff would make me laugh if it didn't make me cry a little first.


The fallacy, which is mostly built on the idea that language is inexact (which it is), implies that, hey, we should all just *relax*, man, who's to tell ME what's RIGHT and what's WRONG, man.


Well, Strunk and White, for two, that's who.


Addressing your assertion that Strunk and White's principles would eliminate the need for "erasers", Blaise Pascal once wrote: "I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter." Actually, I think the quote can be traced in some form back to Horace, but let's give Blaise his due. What do you think he's saying there, bud?


Secondly, Tom Robbins? Okay, that's opinion, I'll grant you, but you give the terms "greatest writer" and "era" and then proffer Strunk and White's response in *quotes*. Greatest writer? Of everything? Fiction and non-fiction? Philosophy? And in English, French, Spanish, German, Arabic, Farsi, and Chinese?


Damn. Tom Robbins is AMAZING.


Of our era? WTF is *our* era? What, the Cenozoic Era? The post-modern era? The last two decades? If you'd said, hey, Tom Robbins is the greatest living American author writing fiction in English in the last forty years or so, I'd have said, okay, well, that's your opinion. But your basic assertion is just, well ...


Aw, man. There's so much wrong with this post. Please don't write about writing. Please. People might read it and think you have something to say.

M. David Peterson
2007-08-03 12:19:17
@Woof,


Secondly, Tom Robbins? Okay, that's opinion, I'll grant you, but you give the terms "greatest writer" and "era" and then proffer Strunk and White's response in *quotes*. Greatest writer? Of everything? Fiction and non-fiction? Philosophy? And in English, French, Spanish, German, Arabic, Farsi, and Chinese?


So, in essence, what you are suggesting is that I should have written more to help qualify what I was suggesting? Of course anyone who knows Tom Robbins knows he's a writer of fiction, and anyone who doesn't know Tom Robbins can easily discover more detail by following the link I provided to his Wikipedia page. But fair enough,


Given Tom Robbins writes fiction, then to call him the "Best Writer of our era." would of course qualify him as the best fiction writer of our era. Of course one could have easily looked at his Wikipedia page and discovered that his first title was written in 1971, his most recent in 2005, so by *our* era I would, of course, be placing focus on the era that falls between 1971 through at least 2005, though '71-present would certainly be a fair assumption . So this gives us a range that spans ~36 years.


Of course your smart a$$ comments suggests you are of the type who likes to argue for the sake of arguing, and as such I can only assume you knew what I was referring to but felt that it would be clever to try and argue that, in fact, you are a complete idiot and need phrases such as "our era" spelled out to you in fine-tuned detail.


See, here's the problem I have with folks like yourself: You latch on to the notion that language and the rules in which define its syntax are stalwart and steadfast; that, in fact, the "elements of style" relating to the first half of the 20th century are just as relavent now as they were 75 years ago. The problem, of course, is that *styles* change as does language and therefore the rules that define its syntax. We live in a day and time in which ;-) and <3 have meanings that go beyond what they were originally designed to be used for. Does this mean that the usage of ;-) and <3 are therefore incorrect and should be banned from writing? Of course not (well, no doubt there are those who believe that it should, but best of luck to each of you that make an attempt at pulling just such a feat off), which is why I make the argument that Strunk and White, while they once obviously had relavence, are past their prime; their suggested elements of style much less relavent than they were when they were written.


Of course probably the biggest influence on my thought train is the invent of blogging; instant publishing for the masses that has easily become the most common form of publishing in existence today. The problem with blogging is that it is very conversational. Strunk and White lived in a era in which the art of writing was much different than it is today. Their rules applied to an editing process that could take weeks, months, and in many cases years to complete. As a general rule of thumb, blog entries don't go through an editorial process. By their very design they are an ongoing stream of thought. To spend the time to edit their content to conform to the rules of Strunk and White go beyond their intention. As such, attempting to apply Strunk and White to the modern day art of instant publishing is a complete waste of time.


So then I pose to you this question: Is it the job of society to conform their forms of communication to the rules of years gone past, or is it the job of the rules of years gone past to conform to the changes in communication?


My argument is for the latter, but I'm certainly interested and open to hear any and all counter arguments that suggest, in fact, that changing the rules of writing to conform to modern day communication is wrong.

Woof
2007-08-03 13:17:29
@M. David Peterson


No, in fact, I don't like to argue for the sake of arguing, I find that tedious. Your inference seeks to make my argument insignificant by implying that it's mostly a kind of boredom-fueled recreation. Nice try, if what you're doing is gleefully defending your ideas at the cost of intelligent commentary. And if that is what you're doing, then, well, congratulations.



... I can only assume you knew what I was referring to ...


And this is a core problem, which you acknowledge in your later assertion that blog writing is stream-of-consciousness unleashed.


You see, no, in fact, I don't know what you're referring to, not precisely. This is a freshman-level gaffe. The inexactness of written language, which you glorify as an affront to the rules of S&W, is not an excuse to write steaming globs of minddump under the rubric of "hey, you know what I mean ..." Obviously, this depends on context, and competent blogs succeed in addressing their audiences successfully. But I groan over this particular post because you generally attack rules of clear writing, which is all S&W (and others like them) are trying to promote, with a class of "hey, man, WHO'S TO TELL ME" middle-fingered hubris. High school's over, man.



Their rules applied to an editing process that could take weeks, months, and in many cases years to complete.


WTF are you talking about? Weeks? Months? For really large manuscripts, *maybe* -- and for which it's no different today -- but you seem to be laboring under the idea that Strunk and White were of the era where stuffy editors pored over yellowed manuscripts in darkened rooms, holding fragile quills and triple-checking their commas. Good grief. The whole point of S&W (and, again, others like them) is for their rules to become second-nature responses (which is a large reason why it's a very small book), not a list of requirements which go through a waterfall process of manuscript development. You see, writing, after all, is *not* software engineering. Broaden your viewpoint a little.



As a general rule of thumb, blog entries don't go through an editorial process.


Clearly.



As such, attempting to apply Strunk and White to the modern day art of instant publishing is a complete waste of time.


S&W themselves state explicitly that their rules may be broken. But this last assertion of yours is just, well, funny. Again, it's your opinion, so hey, if that works for you, knock yourself out. But I don't think it is working for you. I think you need to find a different authority's flag to burn, because S&W really doesn't do anything other than help with clear communication. Their rules apply to English usage, and while our language does change over time, there's very little in "Elements of Style" which can't be applied to any written text which intends to say something useful. Far from being antiquated, the vast majority of bloggers, yourself included, would benefit by studying it.

M. David Peterson
2007-08-03 14:03:06
@Woof,


Ahhh... I hit the nerve I was hoping to hit. Excellent! ;-)


Of course by "Excellent" what I am referring to is that your follow-up pulled out what I was hoping it would pull out and that is this: Something a bit meatier to chew on such that I could better understand your position. This is the piece that I have found the most tasty thus far,


But I groan over this particular post because you generally attack rules of clear writing, which is all S&W (and others like them) are trying to promote, with a class of "hey, man, WHO'S TO TELL ME" middle-fingered hubris.


... Put this way your position becomes quite a bit more clear. And I can't help but agree with your point. Let me chew a bit more on the rest of this and then see where that leaves things.


Thanks for the follow-up, Woof! :D


Woof
2007-08-03 15:32:36
@M. David Peterson



Put this way your position becomes quite a bit more clear. And I can't help but agree with your point.


This is a controlled, considered response. I have no idea what to do with this. Maybe I do like to argue for the sake of arguing.


<takes a look in the mirror>


I'm seeing someone who needs to take the rest of Friday off ...

M. David Peterson
2007-08-03 17:20:14
@Woof,


>> I'm seeing someone who needs to take the rest of Friday off ...


Well if nothing else, take it off knowing you helped change the way I was looking at this. This, of course, is one of the things I *LOVE* about blogging > It encourages communication on important subject matter that would otherwise not take place if the medium didn't exist. I can't tell you how many times I've been forced to reevaluate my position on something because of a follow-up comment to a post I've made. It's a fantastic way to help in the realization that life isn't always what we might think it is. So for what it's worth, thanks for helping me understand that my viewpoint was in fact quite flawed from several angles.