The Elements of Style, Third Edition



Pros: Clear, brief, and bold. “Scorns the vague, the tame, the colorless, the irresolute.

Cons: A bit ‘old school’ and dogmatic …but Elements will teach you to ignore the rule when necessary.

William Strunk Jr. was a professor of English at Cornell University in the early 1900s. Professor Strunk published a guide for his students making his case for “cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.” The Elements of Style has been revised several times since its original publication. While each revision has added to the original tome, I suspect Strunk would have no difficulty recognizing his original work.

The Elements of Style covers many problematic English usages and ‘questions’ grouped into several chapters.

I.  Elementary Rules Of Usage

Possessive singular of nouns, the ‘serial’ comma, dash, colon, number of the verb, proper case of pronoun, participial phrase. A lot of stuff you may not have thought about since your last grade school English class. This is stuff today’s grade school students may not be learning. The advice and rules may seem pedantic …but your reader will thank you.

II.  Elementary Principles Of Composition

Make the paragraph the unit of construction.” Active voice, positive statements, “use definite, specific, concrete language“, “omit needless words“, (a favorite of mine) “loose sentences” and more.

More stuff we all know. Strunk shares bad examples of usage and provides good examples of better phrasing and usage.  More pedantic but necessary (and helpful) thoughts.

III.  A Few Matters Of Form

A short chapter covering headings, hyphens, numerals, parentheses, quotations, and more. Sounds dry …at least it is covered quickly …yet you will learn something new.

IV.  Words and Expressions Commonly Misused

From ‘A to W’ (no X, Y, Z examples) a sampling of words commonly misused or overused. It is interesting to note Strunk (or perhaps White) criticizes finalize as “a pompous, ambiguous verb.” I doubt this thought would be true today.

Despite some dated entries …there are solid examples of words to be careful using and words to avoid using.

V.  An Approach To Style

This section is an addition by E. B. White for this edition. She notes in the Introduction “Chapter V (sets) forth my own prejudices, my notions of error, my articles of faith.” Some examples:

Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.

Revise and rewrite.

Avoid fancy words.

Be clear.

The recommendations and proscriptions here are all important,  best used in concert. Rarely does one “avoid fancy words” and write ‘clearly‘ without ample ‘revision and rewriting’.

An Index finishes this section and the book.


The Bottom Line

Near the end of the Style section author White shares some thoughts I find valuable.

” If one is to write, one must believe—in the truth and worth of the scrawl, in the ability of the reader to receive and decode the message.” … while at the same time remembering “ … the whole duty of a writer is to please and satisfy himself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one.

The Elements of Style will not break your writer’s block. It will not choose the proper structure and form for your work in progress nor choose the ‘best’ word to use at any moment. Elements will not guarantee your tome will be successful when you finally release it.

The Elements of Style will give you concise and useful advice on this business of writing. It is an oldie but definitely worth reading for the first time or reading again.

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