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Some writing lessons from the elements of style- Part 1

Updated on November 19, 2014

William Strunk Jr.

The Elements of Style first appeared in 1918. The most updated version by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White is a favorite reference manual for those of us who write. I recently took a look at the Strunk's first version of the book, available in the public domain. William Strunk managed to distill many points of good writing, which I teach in my writing classes today. So here are some of the points from the The Elements of Style that I still use in my writing courses.

On Possessives

Many of my students get confused between possessives and plural. What the heck, as long as the word ends in an s, just take your chances and throw one in. (see my hub on apostrophes). Unfortunately, more often than not, it leads to apostrophe errors. I see many errors here, especially with its (possessive vs. it's contraction). Students from remedial to Phd, seem to mix this one up so,

  • Use 's to form the possessive of singular nouns.
  • Watch out also for possessive pronouns that end in s hers, its, theirs, yours, and oneself. These have no apostrophe; still, I
  • No matter what consonant letter a noun ends with, if it is singular use apostrophe s ('s).

For example:

-Giles's friend
-Stern's poems
-the witch's brew


-Jesus' is the plural of Jesus; conscience' sake; for righteousness' sake.

- rather than Isis' temple, write the temple of Isis; for Moses' Laws, write the Laws of Moses.

More on commas

Introductory words or phrases in a sentence should also be set off by a comma.

Example: With hard work, and with a lot of stamina, she managed to write the essay the night before.

No comma: When information is essential to the subject of the sentence in the main clause, then there is no need to set it off by commas.

Example: The job applicant who best matches their requirements will get be hired. Here, the clause serves to give us more essential information, so the sentence cannot be split up into two independent statements. ('who best matches their requirements' is also a restrictive is essential to the meaning of the sentence).

No comma: When two independent clauses follow each other, do not separate them with a comma. This is called a comma splice. This is one of the most common errors that my students make. (See my hub the 5 common grammar mistakes students make) If two or more clauses, grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction, are to form a single compound sentence, one way to punctuate them is to use a semi-colon.

Incorrect: Don't expect him to act any differently, this is what he always does.These two phrases, need to be separated by semi-colon since they are independent clauses and can stand alone as separate sentences.

Correct: Don't expect him to act any differently; this is what he always does.

Co-ordinate conjunctions. When you have two related independent clauses, they can also be joined by one of the co-ordinate conjunctions represented by the acronym FANBOYS (short for for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so).

Commas and coordinate conjunctions: Place a comma before using a co-ordinate conjunction that introduces a new independent clause.

Example: Don't expect him to act differently, for this is what he always does.

Commas and connectives: The connectives so and yet can either be used as adverbs or co-ordinate conjunctions. When you use them as adverbs, then separate the first and second clause with a semicolon.

Example: I had never been to Toronto before; so I got lost when I arrived in the city.

Same subject for two clauses: When the subject is the same for both clauses and occurs just once in the sentence, use a comma for the conjunction but. For the conjunction and, omit the comma if there is a close relationship between the two clauses.


I have heard his request , but remain indifferent to the situation.

She has several years' experience and is thoroughly trained in this field..

Never use a period when you can use a comma. Some people as they are writing separate phrases and clauses with a period, when they should use a comma. Commas are visual cues to the reader for a "semi-pause" .

Incorrect: I met them on cruise several years ago. Returning home from the Caribbean to Toronto. They were interesting people. A couple who had traveled all around the world.

Replace the period in both of the above sentences with a comma.

On Commas

items in a list

When you are listing items of three or more (these could be a list of nouns, or phrases in parallel) and the last two items are separated by a conjunction ( a word such as 'and', or 'or'), then, according to Strunk, do the following:

Separate each item in the list with a comma (including the one before the conjunction). There's no need for a comma after the last item in the list.


  • green, blue, and white
  • silver, gold, or copper

He opened the box, emptied it, and made a note of its contents.

Johnson, Smith and Co. there's no need for the comma.

Asides or parenthetical comments. These are words and phrases that add stylistically. The reader they are 'nice to have' but not necessary. You can use commas to set them off.

Example: He said, by the way, that he was going to be moving next month.

Dates: Separate items in the date as follows:

  • November 11, 2012
  • February to June , 2012
  • May 6, 2012.

Non-restrictive relative clauses - These are not essential to modifying the noun that precedes them so they can be separated by commas in a sentence..

Example: : The students, who were bored, became increasingly more interested.

In this sentence, the clause 'who were bored' does not say which students were bored, and therefore is not really essential to the meaning of the sentence. It just adds some additional information to the main clause and functions as an aside.

Also, set off clauses introduced by conjunctions indicating time or place with commas.In fact, all dependent clauses should be set off by commas, especially if they precede the subject of a sentence.

Example: Before we went home, we stopped at the store. This sentence starts with a subordinating conjunction that indicates time. There's a comma right before the main clause begins.


Short clauses that are alike in form sometimes take a comma to separate.


  • Man proposes, God disposes.
  • The gate swung apart, the bridge fell, the portcullis was drawn up.
  • I hardly knew him, he was so changed,

Sometimes a word or expression can take a period, even it is not a sentence

.Example: Again and again he called out. No reply.

Use your judgement on the syntax. This is more of a stylistic, than a grammatical issue.

Dangling participial phrases

What's a dangling participial phrase: It's a phrase that is misplaced in the sentence, ends up modifying the wrong noun thus making the sentence extremely awkward.

What's a participle: It's an "ing" word in the present (no auxiliary verbs), eg. walking--- when isolated and used alone without an auxiliary verb, the particple can be used as an adjective--Example: walking stick, swimming lesson.

Past participles, an 'ed' form of a regular verb (or other irregular past participle such as 'woven') can also be used as modifiers (adjectives); eg woven cloth.

Participial phrase Example: Driving slowly down the road, he spotted a woman accompanied by three children.

Here, driving (slowly down the road) modifies the subject of the sentence, He

Sentence recast: He spotted a woman accompanied by three children, driving slowly down the road.

In this case,with the comma, the sentence is recast to emphasize that the woman was driving and not the man. Sometimes things aren't so clear.

Look at this sentence

Young and inexperienced, the job appeared to be simple to me.

Who is young and experienced here? The writer or the job? Unfortunately, the phrase young and inexperienced is 'dangling' in the wrong place and gives the sentence an awkward structure.

Correction: Young and experience, I found the job to be simple.

Example: Being in a shabby state, I was able to purchase the house at a bargain price.

Who is shabby here? The writer or the house? From the sentence it is unclear, but structured as if the writer is 'shabby'. That's the damage a dangling participial phrase does to a sentence.

Correction: Being in a shabby state, the house was available for purchase at a bargain price.

The Elements of Style in the public domain

You can find the first edition of Strunk's The Elements of Style (1918) at for free in the public domain. Although the language and examples are a bit stilted, the techniques and guidelines are still quite relevant.

The Elements of Style on Amazon

Have you ever read the Elements of Style?

Submit a Comment

  • WillStarr profile image

    WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona


    There going to have they're picnic over their.


  • Rhonda_M profile image

    Rhonda Malomet 5 years ago from Toronto, Canada

    I know about the you're and your; it's so easy confuse those when you're writing quickly in the moment. My fingers type faster than my brain :-)

  • WillStarr profile image

    WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

    Excellent! This sort of stuff will drive you nuts when your engrossed in a great story.

    (And yes, I know that should have been 'you're', but it serves to illustrate the point.)