Mark S. Weiner

Why International Law is Like Webster’s Third Dictionary (at least, for E. B. White)

In Aesthetics, narrative, form, Environment, International law, Law and literature, United Nations on June 18, 2013 at 5:46 pm

United Nations Security Council Chamber

E. B. White disliked the name “the United Nations”—he thought it dishonest and phony. The structure of the institution, from its weak emergency force to the veto power of the Security Council, seemed to him to sell out the ideal of global unity. It offered a thin bill of fare whose underlying ingredient was the principle of national sovereignty.

“Some people, perhaps most people, think words are not really important,” he wrote in Points of My Compass, “but I am a word man and I attach the very highest importance to words. … The newspapers, with their sloppy proofreading, sometimes call the world organization the United Notions, sometimes the Untied Nations. Neither of these typos would make a serviceable title, but curiously enough, both are pat.”

Because White was at bottom “a word man,” I’d like to conclude this thread by suggesting how his legal vision is implicated in The Elements of Style—a book that many readers of this blog will know more intimately than all his other works. White’s views about English prose, it turns out, also register his views about world federalism.

In Stuart Little, the book’s hero draws a distinction between two proposed laws: “Don’t eat mushrooms, they might be toadstools” and “Nix on swiping anything.” The first, says the young mouse, acting as Chairman of the World, is merely “advice.” The second is a “good law.” Why? Foremost among its qualities, it is enforceable. In its propositional clarity, it can be backed up with punishment and power—which Stuart demonstrates by encouraging Harry Jamieson to steal Katharine Stableford’s scented pillow.

Wild FlagWhite believed that the standards for international conduct developed by the United Nations were nothing more than a litany of recommendations not to eat mushrooms—and that they probably could never be anything more than that. The institution’s rules, after all, were developed through mere diplomacy. “To speak as though we had law,” he protested in The Wild Flag, “when what we’ve got is treaties and pacts, to use the world ‘law’ for non-law, is to lessen our chances of ever getting law among peoples.”

To vindicate the equality of mankind, to protect “the ‘I’ in man which Hitler has set out to destroy,” to protect all the world’s peoples—including, in Stuart Little, rats—treaties and pacts were not enough. “Government is the thing,” White argued. “Law is the thing. Not brotherhood, not international co-operation ….” What was needed were objective, inflexible, normative rules of conduct whose meaning everyone could apprehend.

Here are some clear, inflexible rules White also supported:

1) Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ’s.

2) In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.

3) Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.

4) Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.

5) Do not join independent clauses by a comma.

Those are among the “Elementary Rules of Usage.” Here are some “Elementary Principles of Composition”:

12) Choose a suitable design and hold to it.

13) Make the paragraph the unit of composition.

14) Use the active voice.

15) Put statements in positive form.

16) Use definite, specific, concrete language.

White captured the power of these rules, and The Elements of Style (1959) generally, in a moving tribute to William Strunk, Jr., the influential Cornell professor whose work he revised. Reflecting on why their style manual should end up, improbably, on the New York Times bestseller list, White wrote:

From Wikipedia:

A cover design befitting the content

I think I now understand what happened. The Strunk book, which is a “right and wrong” book, arrived on the scene at a time when a wave of reaction was setting in against the permissive school of rhetoric, the Anything Goes school where right and wrong do not exist and there is no foundation all down the line. … It was during the permissive years that the third edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary was being put together, along new lines of lexicography, and it was Dr. Gove, the head man, who perhaps expressed the whole thing most succinctly when he remarked that a dictionary ‘should have no traffic with … artificial notions of correctness or superiority. It must be descriptive and not prescriptive.’ This approach struck many people as chaotic and degenerative, and that’s the way it strikes me. Strunk was a fundamentalist; he believed in right and wrong, and so, in the main, do I. Unless someone is willing to entertain notions of superiority, the English language disintegrates, just as a home disintegrates unless someone in the family sets standards of good taste, good conduct, and simple justice.

From Wikipedia:

George Eliot

In regard to composition, the core rule of right and wrong in The Elements of Style is number sixteen, produced above. As Strunk and White explain: “If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is this one: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete.” The roots of this view of English prose trace most importantly to the nineteenth-century realist novel: think George Eliot, Charles Dickens or, in America, William Dean Howells. This ancestry is important. The realist novel advances a democratic moral and political vision. It rests on the belief that individuals have the capacity to know and understand the world for themselves provided there’s a clear enough lens through which to view it. The lens is language.

Within the realist tradition, style and democratic aspirations go hand in hand.

In A Democratic Manifesto—a plea for world government which White greatly admired—Emery Reves begins by calling attention to words through an epigraph from Confucius. The passage concerns “the rectification of names,” and I’ve mentioned it in an earlier post. “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things,” the passage asserts. “What the superior man requires,” it concludes, “is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.” Read faithfully, the text advances a view of language meant to strengthen status hierarchies: every person should be treated according to his single correct name, or title. But in a move characteristic of a certain strain of popular liberal discourse, Reves transformed this ancient Chinese argument for strictly observed rank into a call for linguistic transparency in the service of the global, democratic rule of law.

In his criticism of the United Nations, White said things should be called by their correct names. He urged the institution to use clear, specific, concrete terms in its rules for international affairs. For readers who have grown up on White’s children’s stories, it can be a bracing experience to read him line-editing the Charter of the United Nations “There are some truly comical [textual bugs],” wrote the author of Stuart Little in 1956, “like Chapter I, Article 2, Paragraph 5, which, if I interpret it correctly ….”

The deficiencies of the Charter most obviously enabled the abuse of human rights and principles of democratic self-determination by the Soviet Union, whose appeasement by western powers White roundly deplored:

From Wikipedia:

Budapest, 1956

When Hungary erupted, the world was shocked beyond measure at what was taking place. But under the Charter of the United Nations the Hungarian government was in a position to put up just as noisy an argument as the oppressed people who were in rebellion. ‘Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.’ (Chapter I, Article 2, Paragraph 7.) And when the U.N. wanted to send observers in, it received a polite no. This is palpably ridiculous, and it boils down to a deficiency in the Charter ….

The lack of clarity allowed for all manner of mischief by every sovereign party. Weasel words undermined the possibility of legality. They prevented international law from taking on an objective, normative, enforceable character. There was no foundation all down the line.

“The subtlest joker in the Charter,” in White’s view, was the term “aggression,” which was left vague—a violation, one might say, of rule sixteen of the exacting style manual he would publish three years later. “This isn’t surprising,” he mused:

To define aggression, it is necessary to get into the realm of right and wrong, and the Charter of the United Nations studiously avoids this delicate area. It is also necessary to go back a way. Webster says of aggression, “A first or unprovoked attack.” And that, you see, raises the old, old question of which came first, the hen or the egg. What, we must ask, came first in the Middle East clash between Arab and Jew? You could go back two thousand years, if you wanted to. You could certainly go back beyond October 29, 1956, when the Israelis came streaming across the Sinai desert.

I love the citation to Webster’s—it being 1956, it’s still a few years before Webster’s Third. White sought an international law that was resolutely prescriptive. He favored rules over dynamic process, whether linguistic or diplomatic.

White applied the same requirements of concreteness and specificity to his own writing, most especially to his writing about the natural world, especially animals. The upshot of his children’s literature is to provide individual subjectivity to creatures humans often see as mere representatives of a class. This moral impulse characterizes much of what White accomplishes as a writer, throughout his work, and it’s therefore not surprising, though rarely remarked, that his concluding chapter in The Elements of Style—the essay “An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders)”—ends with an image of a cow. Of the writer who properly understands his craft, White says this:

Full of his beliefs, sustained and elevated by the power of his purpose, armed with the rules of grammar, the writer is ready for exposure. At this point, he may well pattern himself on the fully exposed cow of Robert Louis Stevenson’s rhyme. This friendly and commendable animal, you may recall, was “blown by all the winds that pass/And wet with all the showers.” And so must the young writer be. In our modern idiom, we would say that he must get wet all over. Mr. Stevenson, working in a plainer style, said it with felicity, and suddenly one cow, out of so many, received the gift of immortality. Like the steadfast writer, she is at home in the wind and the rain; and, thanks to one moment of felicity, she will live on and on and on.

In this light, White’s criticism of the language of international law and his approach to writing about the environment converge in a common call for specificity and particularity. Even more, his demand for concreteness in two distinct literary domains worked toward a tandem purpose.

As I discussed in an earlier post, by providing individuality and subjectivity to animals—by writing about them and about the natural world in the utmost particular—White fostered the imaginative displacement through which readers could perceive a common human interest that transcended nationalism. He encouraged the larger view of things necessary to forge a political consensus for institutions of global government. Yet the only way such institutions could function as legal bodies, and so truly protect the “‘I” Hitler and the Soviet Union sought to destroy, was by using the same definite, specific, concrete words, sentences and paragraphs.

The ideal and the actual—a vision of “what’s important” and a set of rules to vindicate that vision at law—were bound together in White’s view of literary craft.

The Elements of Style is a liberal, anti-communist, internationalist, environmentalist equivalent of George Orwell’s great essay “Politics and the English Language.”

It’s a book that contains a politics, a jurisprudence, and an ethic of humanity’s relation to the natural world characteristic of an important, fading tradition of midcentury liberal thought in New England.


Remains of a portable saw mill, Devil’s Den Preserve, Weston, Connecticut.

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