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Strunk & White - The Elements of Style

Updated on August 13, 2013

Improve your Writing with The Elements of Style

Any student who has studied writing, and any person with a serious desire to become a published author will be familiar with the small, but important handbook known as "The Elements of Style ." The first edition was privately published by author William Strunk, Jr. in 1918. Strunk was a Cornell University professor. Many years later, E.B. White, a former student of Strunk, discovered the book in 1957. He wrote an article for The New York Times in which he praised Professor Strunk for his "lucid" English prose. At that time, Strunk had already passed away. But the interest that the Times article sparked led to a commission by MacMillian and Company to Mr. White to republish a new version in 1959.

In case you were wondering - yes, this is the same E.B. White that authored Charlotte's Web , among other award-winning books.

Even if you have already reviewed the so called "writer's bible" , you may wish to refresh your memory on many of the key instructional points on proper grammar usage and punctuation in the English language. The original book itself was only 43 pages long, and one of its primary points is the case for brevity in writing. Among many abominations: "omit needless words," and "make every word tell." Today, somewhat ironically, the book has grown to over 80 pages in length, not including a forward, afterward, glossary and index. The forward is authored by White's stepson, Roger Angell.

The Writer's Bible

E.B. White
E.B. White
These animals do not "comprise" a zoo, they "constitute" a zoo
These animals do not "comprise" a zoo, they "constitute" a zoo

Key Tips from Elements of Style

1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding 's.

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

3. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.

4. Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.

5. Do not join independent clauses with a comma.

6. Do not break sentences in two.

7. Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation.

8. Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.

9. The number of the subject determines the number of the verb.

10. Use the proper case of pronoun.

11. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.

12. Choose a suitable design and hold to it.

13. Make the paragraph the unit of composition.

14. Use the active voice.

15. Put statements in positive form.

16. Use definite, specific, concrete language.

17. Omit needless words.

18. Avoid a succession of loose sentences.

19. Express coordinate ideas in similar form.

20. Keep related words together.

21. In summaries, keep to one tense.

22. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

23. Revise and rewrite.

24. Do not overwrite.

25. Do not overstate.

26. Avoid the use of qualifiers.

27. Do not affect a breezy manner.

28. Use orthodox spelling.

29. Do not explain too much.

30. Do not construct awkward adverbs.

31. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.

32. Avoid fancy words.

33. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.

34. Be clear.

35. Do not inject opinion.

36. Use figures of speech sparingly.

37. Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.

Illustration of Illusion (contrasted with allusion)
Illustration of Illusion (contrasted with allusion)

Pick up a Copy of Elements of Style

For more explanations about this guidance, you really should pull a copy of The Elements of Style. I would recommend going to your local library to check out an edition, but you will want to refer to this book so often, its best just to get your own copy.

Better yet, there is now an illustrated edition, with drawings by Maria Kalman, which give some perspective to many of Strunk's rules. Some of the pictures are shown on the right. All editions of the books can be found on the links shown above.

If you tighten your writing and make it more concise, you can make your point in fewer words. This should lead to more effective writing overall. I challenge you, as well as myself, to review and implement at least 3 of these rules in the next written work that you publish. Remember that publishing generally means putting out in the public domain. A letter to your mother, a post on a blog, and issuing a report for your company all can qualify as "publication." In other words, unless you keep your written words completely to yourself, you have probably published them, legally speaking.

Its safe to say that Strunk & White's handbook will probably be one of the main foundations in the library of writers for the foreseeable future. Once you review the rules and get a better understanding for proper usage of the English language, you should see why.

Write, Right, Write!


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    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 5 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Thank you detroitmare! I'm going to go check out your hub now too!

    • profile image

      detroitmare 5 years ago

      Maybe a recent comment will draw more attention to this hub. I started a hub about the book myself, but then saw yours. You've got it covered! Every writer should own a copy of The Elements of Style.

    • htodd profile image

      htodd 5 years ago from United States

      Thanks for the great post...Nice stephhick68

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 6 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      I agree, thanks for stopping by, Pamela!

    • Pamela N Red profile image

      Pamela N Red 6 years ago from Oklahoma

      Best book ever written. All writers need this.

    • Carol the Writer profile image

      Carolyn Blacknall 8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Great hub. The Elements of Style is a good resource. Thanks for writing this. – Carol

    • 2patricias profile image

      2patricias 9 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

      Thanks for this Hub - not aware of this style guide. Is it American? We edit each other for our own website. We both have a tendency to use too many exclamation marks!

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Thank you Sally's Trove! I have a well-worn copy, myself. Like you, I have a number of pet peeves, like knowing the difference between effect and affect (yes!!!), and I notice that error even in "fine" publications. I am a stickler for appropriate usage of words and punctuation (don't get me started on plurals and possessives). So glad you found this, and thank you again for the comment. Steph

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 9 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Steph, what a great hub. I can't believe I didn't see it until now. But I'm so glad I did.

      This little book has been my companion since my college days. I must have bought 15 copies of this book in hard cover and paperback over the last few years, because I give it to anyone I know who wants to write.

      "Strunk and White" is a pleasing and powerful mantra in my world. When I'm puzzled over a phrase or construction, I just think "Strunk and White", and my puzzle is solved.

      The value of this book to a writer cannot be overestimated.

      One of my favorite "key" tips? The difference between effect and affect. So few writers know it or even think it's important to know the difference.

      Best regards, ST.

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Thanks so much Mary! I was glad to link this Hub to the recent one. :-) I really need to take my own advice (and Strunk and White's, as well).

    • Mary K Weinhagen profile image

      Mary K Weinhagen 9 years ago from Minnesota, usa, Planet Earth

      WOW! Thanks for the refresher!

      As I was reading your article I pulled out my very used, aged and discolored Third Edition copy of Strunk and White's book... I was quickly reminded to clean up some pesky little 'no-no's' I've been guilty of lately. Thanks!

      ~~Mary K

    • Angela Harris profile image

      Angela Harris 9 years ago from Around the USA

      Best book for writers ever, as far as technicalities go. And in such a teensy weensy little space, too. (Man, would Strunk & White have been upset at those two previous incomplete sentences!)

    • Uninvited Writer profile image

      Susan Keeping 9 years ago from Kitchener, Ontario

      I was never without this book when I was at college and writing essays. One of the best resources out there.

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Caregiver - that is the funniest quote ever! One I will definitely remember. Thanks for sharing it. :)

    • Caregiver-007 profile image

      Margaret Hampton 9 years ago from Florida

      I tend to be too wordy, too, and to try to explain too much. With passion for vivid expression, combined with professional training to be excruciatingly detail oriented, I am most challenged by this. I laughed when I read Mark Twain's quote: "If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter."

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      I'm also too wordy. This was good for me to write about! :-)

    • C.M. Vanderlinden profile image

      C.M. Vanderlinden 9 years ago from Metro Detroit

      Great hub, Steph. I tend to be wordy, so "omit needless words" has become my writing mantra :-) My copy of 'The Elements of Style' is dog-eared, post-it noted, and always by my side. I still think I manage to do some things that would make William Strunk cringe!

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Thanks! And yes, its the same EB White that wrote Charlotte's web.

    • Peter M. Lopez profile image

      Peter M. Lopez 9 years ago from Sweetwater, TX

      Definitely a must have. Good luck in the contest.

    • profile image

      Just surfed in 9 years ago

      Is that the same White that wrote Charolote's Web? Thanks. Interesting page.