The Elements of Style

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Elements of Style by Strunk & White is one of the most influential style guides out there; it is required reading in thousands of U.S. high school and college classes. We worked through it in Writing Roundups #5-9, but aside from the occasional comment, I haven’t shared my opinion, so that’s what I’m doing today.

The Elements of Style Third Edition Paperback


William Strunk Jr. wrote The Elements of Style in 1918 and privately published it in 1919. Professor Strunk used the original 43-page book in his English class at Cornell University where it became known as “the little book.”

William Strunk Jr.
William Strunk Jr.

“This book is intended for use in English courses in which the practice of composition is combined with the study of literature ..." He intended it "to lighten the task of instructor and student by concentrating attention ... on a few essentials, the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated”(quoted from Strunk’s original Introduction, not included in my third edition).

E.B. White
E.B. White

In a column for The New Yorker in 1957, E.B. White (one of Strunk’s former students) called the book a “forty-three-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English” and was then recruited by MacMillan to work on the expanded and revised edition, hence why the revised editions of the book are sometimes referred to as “Strunk and White.”

I read a 1979 third edition paperback from Allyn & Bacon (Simon & Schuster) that includes an index, making it 92 pages.  This version I read in its entirety. In my research for this review, I also frequently referenced Strunk's original book, because I was curious which of the authors was responsible for various sections, but I didn't read the whole first edition.

What Is Style?

Before I get any further into this review, I should explain some things about style. Style is not necessarily grammar, nor is it entirely standardized. There are some solid, standard rules to English grammar, but there are a number of issues not governed by these rules.

Style guides help writers to create internal consistency and clarity in their work by creating "rules" where none actually exist or where the rules are debatable. A personal style sheet could be just a page or two. Other style guides are much longer; The Chicago Manual of Style,17th edition is 1,146 pages long. Some publications and industries require a specific style guide, but general writing requires no specific standard. You can even create your own style sheet.

 The vast majority of the “rules” in this book are more like guidelines or even Strunk and White's opinions. So while it would be incorrect (and rude) to point out perceived style errors in others’ work because they’ve violated one or more of the “rules” from this book, you get to make your own choice on whether to follow them in your writing. And if you didn’t want a set of style guidelines for yourself, why would you read this book in the first place?

The Elements of Style Review

This book’s biggest asset is its brevity.  While most people are not going to read other style guides all the way through, this one is short enough for that—either in its original form or in any of the expanded editions. It also isn’t nit-picky on overly specific things like citations, which are mostly relevant for academic non-fiction writing. It focuses on the most common problems.

Most of the advice in this book is great. “Omit needless words,” for example. Other pieces of advice are outdated to the point of humor. Some of these archaisms are corrected in the fourth edition, but I haven't read the fourth edition, so let's just keep talking about the third.

One of my favorites is from “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused.”

“Never tack -ize onto a noun to create a verb. Usually you will discover that a useful verb already exists.”

Generally, I agree with this advice, but the evolution of language causes the next sentence to fall flat:

“Why say “moisturize” when there is the simple, unpretentious word moisten?”

These days, we use moisturize to refer to the application of greasy things like lotion, whereas moisten is mostly used for the application of water. I suspect that advertising and the skincare industry is responsible for this shift in the language.

Based on my research, this isn't even a Strunk comment, but an E.B. White addition, which I think makes it even funnier. Strunk's original book was less strongly-worded than the later E.B. White revisions. So why not just roll the calendar back and read the first edition?

For starters, the first edition has its own collection of archaisms. And while E.B. White was probably responsible for a number of the things I find less-than-useful in my revised edition, he was also responsible for some of my favorite sections, like the final chapter "An Approach to Style," which includes his philosophy and advice for cultivating a plain, clear writing style.

Sidenote: The final chapter of the first edition "Words Often Misspelled"(not included in the 3rd edition) is also worth looking at. The pieces of advice below the table are outdated now, but plenty of people still have difficulty spelling words from the table.

Most of the hilarious out-of-date opinions of the third edition are from "Chapter IV: Words and Expressions Commonly Misused." Even the out-of-date recommendations here are worth reading for the entertainment value, but the hilarity might be lost on someone who doesn't have a firm grasp of English grammar/usage to begin with.

"Chapter I: Elementary Rules of Usage" and "Chapter II: Elementary Principles of Composition" are pretty solid, basic, and helpful. They cover things that help with clarity, organizing a piece of writing, and creating strong sentences. "Chapter III: A Few Matters of Form" provides brief guidelines for things like formatting and quotations.

Bottom Line

In spite of some outdated or overly opinionated bits of advice, The Elements of Style is still a great book. Where other style guides cover too broad a range of subjects to be approachable, this book is brief enough to read in its entirety. I give the third edition five out of seven mustaches but suspect that a more updated version would be worth six.

I don’t regret using The Elements of Style in our Eclectic Writing Class, but I do wish we could have started with a more general grammar resource, rather than a style guide. Next week we’ll start Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty, which should be a more modern, grammar-centered, and approachable resource. If you haven’t picked up a copy yet, there’s still time.

What are your thoughts on The Elements of Style? Are there any other style and grammar books you recommend? Leave a comment below or my hairless ghost lemur will haunt your dreams.

Strunk & White's The Elements of Style | Lydia Sanders #TwistyMustacheReviews

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