the-elements-of-style

The Elements Of Style By William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White

The Elements of Style was first written by William Strunk Jr. and published in 1920. This tiny book (as William Strunk Jr. himself has called) summarizes the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in English writing. Later revised and expanded by E.B. White, this book has stood the test of time and is currently sold as the fourth edition. Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Book In 3 Sentences

  • In writing, be specific, write actively, concisely, and positively. 
  • Structure your writing for easy reading in terms of paragraph and sentence construction. 
  • Brush up your writing style with the right format.

Book Summary + Notes

Get Your Grammar Right

Possesives

Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s.

  •   ✔ Charles’s friend
  •   ✔ Burns’s poems
  •   ✔ the witch’s malice

Except with:

  • Possessives of ancient proper names ending in -es and -is. 
  • The possessive Jesus’.
  • Forms such as for conscience’ sake and for righteousness’ sake.

Also, do not confuse its with it’s. It’s is a contraction of “it is”. Its is a possessive.

Commas

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

  • ✔ Red white, and blue
  • ✔ Gold, silver, or copper
  • ✔ He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents.

The only exceptions are:

  • Business names—Little, Brown and Company;
  • Abbreviations—etc., i.e., and e.g.

The number of the subject determines the number of the verb

Words that stand between the subject and the verb do not affect the number of the verb. 

  • ❌ The bittersweet flavor of youth—its trials, its joys, its adventures, its challenges—are not soon forgotten. 
  • ✔ The bittersweet flavor of youth—its trials, its joys, its adventures, its challenges—is not soon forgotten. 

Use a singular verb after each, every, either, everyone, everybody, neither, nobody, someone.

  • ✔ Everybody thinks he has a unique sense of humor. 
  • ✔ Although both clocks strike cheerfully, neither keeps good time. 

Use a plural verb after one of.

  • ✔ One of the ablest scientists who have attacked this problem.
  • ✔ One of those people who are never ready on time. 

When Writing, be specific and write actively, concisely, and positively

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

Good writing is concise and emphatic. To improve yours, remember to:

Be specific

Don’t tell your readers what you think. Tell them what you see and let them judge the situations by themselves.

  • ❌ A period of unfavorable weather set in. 
  • ✔It rained every day for a week.
  • ❌He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward.
  • ✔ He grinned as he pocketed the coin.

Write in active voice

The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.

  • Passive: My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.
  • Active: I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.

The often dull and monotonous sentences constructed with there is or could be can be made livelier with the active voice.

  • Passive: There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.
  • Active: Dead leaves covered the ground. 
  • Passive: At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard.
  • Active: The cock’s crow came with dawn.

Other examples:

  • Passive: The reason he left college was that his health became impaired.
  • Active: Failing health compelled him to leave college.
  • Passive: It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had. 
  • Active: She soon repented her words.

Write Concisely

Write in your first draft freely. Then, remove any unnecessary paragraphs, sentences, or words. Don’t aim for a word count. Aim to make every word tell.

  • ❌ the question as to whether
  • ✔ whether (the question whether)
  • ❌there is no doubt but that
  • ✔ no doubt (doubtless)
  • ❌used for fuel purposes
  • ✔ use for fuel
  • ❌he is a man who 
  • ✔ he
  • ❌in a hasty manner 
  • ✔ hastily
  • ❌this is a subject that
  • ✔ this subject
  • ❌Her story is a strange one
  • ✔ Her story is strange
  • ❌the reason why is that
  • ✔ because

Another expression that can often be shorten is the fact that

  • ❌owing to the fact that
  • ✔ since (because)
  • ❌in spite of the fact that
  • ✔ though (although)
  • ❌call your attention to the fact that
  • ✔ remind you (notify you)
  • ❌I was unaware of the fact that
  • ✔ I was unaware that (did not know)
  • ❌the fact that he had not succeeded 
  • ✔ his failure
  • ❌the fact that I had arrived
  • ✔ my arrival.

When presenting a single complex idea, try to combine a series of sentences into one.

  • Macbeth was very ambitious, this led him to wish to become king of Scotland. The witches told him that this wish of his would come true. The king of Scotland at this time was Duncan. Encouraged by his wife, Macbet murdered Duncan. He was thus enabled to succeed Duncan as king. (51 words)
  • Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth achieved his ambition and realized the prediction of the witches by murdering Duncan and becoming king of Scotland in his place. (26 words)

Write Positively

Be clear and confident about what you say. Don’t use not as a means of evasion.

  • ❌He was not very often on time. 
  • ✔ He usually came late.
  • ❌She did not think that studying Latin was a sensible way to use one’s time.
  • ✔ She thought the study of Latin a waste of time.
  • The Taming of the Shrew is rather weak in spots. Shakespeare does not portray Katharine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare’s work.
  • ✔ The women in The Taming of the Shrew are unattractive. Katharine is disagreeable, Bianca insignificant.

Structure your writing for easy reading

Build a framework like how you would build a staircase. Maintain a smooth and continuous flow throughout your writing so your readers can follow effortlessly from the beginning to the end.

Structure your paragraphs

Each paragraph serves as a bullet point. Each bullet is an important main point, and each sub-bullet serves as the stand that supports the main point. 

For each paragraph, start with your main point, then followed by the elaboration and details that support your main point. At the end of the paragraph, you should re-emphasized your main point to help your readers stay on track. 

If a paragraph forms a part of a larger composition, or if it is related to the previous paragraph, consider beginning the paragraph with transition words like again, therefore, for the same reason.

Structure your sentences

Express coordinate ideas in similar form

Be consistent when expressing coordinate ideas. Varying your form encourages confusion.

  • ❌Formerly, science was taught by the textbook method, while now the laboratory method is employed
  • ✔ Formerly, science was taught by the textbook method; now it is taught by the laboratory method.

When using an article of a preposition, you may either use it before the first term only or repeat it before each term. But make sure to be consistent throughout the sentence.

  • ❌the French, the Italians, Spanish, and Portugese.
  • ✔ the French, the Italians, the Spanish, and the Portugese.
  • ❌in spring, summer, or in winter.
  • ✔ in spring, summer, or winter. 
  • ✔ in spring, in summer, or in winter.

Correlative expressions (both, and; not, but; not only, but also; either, or; first, second, third, and the like) should be followed by the same grammatical construction.

  • It was both a long ceremony and very tedious.
  • The ceremony was both long and tedious.
  • ❌A time not for words but action.
  • ✔ A time not for words but for action.
  • ❌A time not for words but action.
  • ✔ A time not for words but for action.
  • ❌Either you must grant his request or incur his ill will. 
  • ✔ You must either grant his request or incur his ill will.
  • ❌My objections are, first, the injustice of the measure; second, that it is unconstitutional.
  • ✔ My objections are, first, that the measure is unjust; second, that it is unconstitutional.
Keep related words together

Keep related words together to help readers identify the relationship between them.

  • ❌ He noticed a large stain in the rug that was right at the center.
  • ✔ He noticed a large stain right in the center of the rug.
  • ❌ There was a stir in the audience that suggested disapproval.
  • ✔ A stir that suggested disapproval swept the audience. 
Place the emphatic words of a sentences at the end

Place emphasis at the end of the sentence to help readers flow from one sentence to the next.

  • ✔ This steel is principally used for making razors, because of its hardness. (Emphasizes hardness.)
  • ✔ Because of its hardness, this steel is principally used for making razors. (Emphasizes making razors.)
  • ✔ Besides making razors, this steel can also be used to make swords. (Emphasizes swords.)
  • ❌ Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways.
  • ✔ Since that time, humanity has advanced in many other ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.
Strengthen your sentence structure

Separate independent sentences with a semicolon or period.

  • ✔ Mary Shelley’s works are entertaining; they are full of engaging ideas.
  • ✔ Mary Shelley’s works are entertaining. They are full of engaging ideas.
  • ✔ It is nearly half past five; we cannot reach town before dark.
  • ✔ It is nearly half past five. We cannot reach town before dark.

Or join them with a comma and a conjunction (e.g., and, but, for, if, etc.)

  • ✔ Mary Shelley’s works are entertaining, for they are full of engaging ideas.
  • It is nearly half past five, and we cannot reach town before dark.

However, this construction results in loose sentences. Avoid having too many loose sentences in a paragraph. Try using tighter constructions.

  • ✔ He is an honest person, and his friends trust him. 
  • ✔✔ Because he is honest, his friends trust him.
  • ✔✔✔ His honesty earned him his friends’ trust.

Enclose additional information with comma, parentheses, or dash.

  • A parenthesis is more polite—like a shy girl whispering to her first crush.
  • A comma is more casual—like a friend talking to you in a conversational tone.
  • A dash is more intrusive—like a buddy shouting in your ears and is not suitable in formal writings.
  • Parenthesis: The best way to see a country (unless you are pressed for time) is to travel on foot.
  • Comma: The best way to see a country, unless you are pressed for time, is to travel on foot. 
  • Dash: The best way to see a country—unless you are pressed for time—is to travel on foot.

Remember—information that changes the meaning of your sentence when it is removed is not “additional information”.

  • ❌ People (sitting in the rear) couldn’t hear.
  • ❌ People, sitting in the rear, couldn’t hear.
  • ❌ People—sitting in the rear—couldn’t hear.
  • ✔ People sitting in the rear couldn’t hear.

Keep the subject of an opening phrase the same as the subject in the main sentence.

  • On arriving in Chicago, his friends met him at the station.
  • On arriving in Chicago, he was met at the station by his friends.
  • Wondering irresolutely what to do next, the clock struck twelve.
  • Wondering irresolutely what to do next, I watched as the clock struck twelve.

Brush up your style

Headings

Omit the period after a title or heading. And then, leave a blank line, or its equivalent in space, after the heading.

Titles

Italicize or romanize the titles of literary work with capitalized initials. Omit initial A or The from titles when you place the possessive before them.

  • ❌ Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.
  • A Tale of Two Cities.
  • ✔ Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities.
  • ❌ Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.
  • The Age of Innocence.
  • Wharton’s Age of Innocence,

Numerals

Do not spell out dates or other serial numbers. Write them in figures. 

  • ✔ August 9, 1998
  • ✔ 352d Infantry
  • ✔ Rule 3

Except when it is written in a dialogue:

  • ✔ “Read Chapter twelve.”
  • ✔ “In the year 1990, I turned twenty-one.”
  • ✔ “I arrived home on August ninth.”

Parenthesis

If a sentence contains a parenthetical expression, it should be punctuated as if the parenthetical expression does not exist. 

  • ✔ I went to her house yesterday (my third attempt to see her), but she had left town.

Unless the parenthesized sentence requires a question mark or an exclamation point.  

  • ✔ He declares (and why should we doubt his good faith?) that he is now certain of success.

When the parenthesized expression is not attached to the main sentence, place the period before the second parenthesis. 

  • ✔ She looked as if she had seen a ghost. (I would too if I were there.)

Quotations

Formal quotations are introduced by a colon and enclosed in quotation marks.

  • The United States Coast Pilot has this to say of the place: “Bracy Cove, 0.5 mile eastward of Bear Island, is exposed to southeast winds, has a rocky and uneven bottom, and is unfit for anchorage.”

In-line quotes, or the direct object of a verb is preceded by a comma and enclosed in quotation marks.

  • I am reminded of the advice of my neighbor, “Never worry about your heart till it stops beating.”
  • Mark Twain says, “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”

When a quotation is followed by an attributive phrase, the comma is enclosed within the quotation marks.

  • “I can’t attend,” she said.
  • “The Fish,” “Poetry,” and “The Monkeys” are in Marianne Moore’s Selected Poems.

Entire line of verse begins on a fresh line and indented without quotation marks.

          Wordsworth’s enthusiasm for the French Revolution was at first unbounded:

                    Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, 

                    But to be young was very heaven!

Proverbial expressions, colloquialisms, slang word or phrases, and quotations introduced by that do not require quotation marks.

  • ✔ Dickinson states that a coffin is a small domain. 
  • ✔ He lives far from the madding crowd.

References

Abbreviate titles that occur frequently and give references in parentheses or in footnotes, not in the body of the sentence.

Personal Thoughts

A concise book filled with powerful and practical rules to write in English with brevity. However, the rules apply to American English and may differ from British English (e.g. quotations).

Having built on Strunk’s principles of terse writing, this book may appear technical and may be hard to get through. 

However, if writing good and concise English is important for you, then the original book certainly has much more details and examples than what I have given here.

Now, I’d love to know—have you read The Elements of Style?  What do you think of it? Did you notice any mistakes in this post? Or have I missed any important points from the original book?

Let me know in the comment sections below!

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About Stephanie Jyet Quan Loo

Founder of stephaniejq.com, a science geek, sports freak, and polyglot. Loves food, books, and snow. Feel free to say hi! 

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