The Mystery Of Great Prose

Morgan Meis marks the 50th anniversary of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White's The Elements of Style:

If there is an underlying metaphysical principle guiding The Elements of Style (the one with White's additional chapter) it is something like the following: language is simple, direct, and expressive… except that it's magical, dynamic, and unfettered.

White looks at Thomas Paine's famous sentence, "These are the times that try men's souls." He tries switching it around to, "Times like these try men's souls." It crashes to the ground. Why? We simply do not know. No explanation seems adequate. Try it yourself. Try to actually explain, with reasons and causes, why the one sentence sets the aforementioned soul stirring while the other practically extinguishes it.

As White says, we usually end up explaining the difference with such words as "rhythm" and "cadence." But what are we really explaining with those words? We're still just saying that one sentence simply sounds better than the other. That's not explanation it’s obfuscation. The first sentence is better and we damn well know it. We don't know why. But we know it, as certain as the hand in front of one's face, the rain falling on the plain.