The Mystery Of Great Prose, Ctd

by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

I bow humbly before the altar of Strunk and White. Every student of the English language should read "Elements" at least once. But as for why "These are the times that try men's souls" is better than "Times like these try men's souls" -- supposedly the evident superiority is unexplainable -- I'll give it a go:

First of all, "These are the times that try men's souls" does not mean the same thing as "Times like these try men's souls." The first is specific, singular. It's the here and now, in which everybody alive is wholly invested. It's troubling and unique. The uncertainty adds mystique and mystery. "Times like these try men's souls" has none of that. It tells us that other times such as these have existed and will exist again, and that we are just another set of people challenged by circumstance. We are not special. Our challenges are not exceptional. But everybody wants to be special, even if they're simply projecting themselves into a grand piece of literature.