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The Elements of Style ()

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Will Strunk was one of E.B. White's professors at Cornell; White took Strunk's English 8 class in 1919.  At that time, Strunk had a privately printed version of The Elements of Style which he used as a textbook for the course.  In 1957, White wrote about the "little book" for The New Yorker and it spurred so much interest that he was asked to revise and update the 1935 edition of the text so that a new version could be published.  The slender classic that he rendered from Strunk's original, which was recently revised again for a 4th edition,  has sold over ten million copies and has influenced generations of American students and writers in ways both predictable and unintended.

As White said of the book, Strunk tried to "cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin."  Strunk's original included a brief set of rules, which come down to us as follows:

    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 by 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
    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. Omit needless words. 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.

and a list of commonly misused words and expressions.  White apparently edited Strunk's rules into the concise form above, updated the word list and added his own set of style rules:

    1.  Place yourself in the background.
    2.  Write in a way that comes naturally.
    3.  Work from a suitable design.
    4.  Write with nouns and verbs.
    5.  Revise and rewrite.
    6.  Do not overwrite.
    7.  Do not overstate.
    8.  Avoid the use of qualifiers.
    9.  Do not affect a breezy manner.
   10. Use orthodox spelling.
   11. Do not explain too much.
   12. Do not construct awkward adverbs.
   13. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.
   14. Avoid fancy words.
   15. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.
   16. Be clear.
   17. Do not inject opinion.
   18. Use figures of speech sparingly.
   19. Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.
   20. Avoid foreign languages.
   21. Prefer the standard to the offbeat.

And that's pretty much all there is to it.  It's very brief--the third edition which I'm using is just 85 pages--it is hardly comprehensive and the word lists in particular are somewhat idiosyncratic.  Yet its influence is undeniable and in a couple of important ways that influence is not clearly understood.

First, the book is important because its fundamental thesis is that writing's primary purpose is to communicate ideas to the reader.   At first blush, this seems like a truism, but between obfuscatory trends in literature (see Orrin's reviews of Finnegans Wake and Ulysses) and the decline of educational standards, replaced by concerns about self-esteem and self-realization, writing has come to be focussed less on the reader than on the writer.  We no longer demand that writing be universally understandable; it suffices that the writer feels fulfilled as an individual by the act of writing.  In this context, Strunk and White can be seen to be a part of the rearguard struggle to maintain writing's communicative function.

Second, the book presupposes that language should communicate in clear and concise fashion.   This too seems obvious on its face, but one of the great casualties of the 20th Century was the very idea that language has a set meaning.  Mankind having basically arrived at a broad liberal, democratic, protestant, capitalist consensus by the turn of the century, it was paradoxically necessary for those who opposed the various elements of this consensus to couch their attacks in it's language, to give them the air of legitimacy.  Consider phrases like People's Republic of China or Earned Income Tax Credit and ponder the plight of our language.  George Orwell, in his great essay Politics and the English Language, states his case thus:

    Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes:
    it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a
    cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so
    on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all
    the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English
    language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of
    our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is
    reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by
    imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of
    these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward
    political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive
    concern of professional writers.

and he concludes:

    I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument
    for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. [some] have come near to claiming that
    all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political
    quietism. Since you don't know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need
    not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is
    connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by
    starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of
    orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its
    stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.  Political language -- and with variations this is true of
    all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and
    murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in
    a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one
    jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase...into the dustbin, where it belongs.

To the extent then that Strunk and White has been a pivotal tool in defending the idea that language should express and not conceal thought, it must be considered, albeit unintentionally, one of the great political texts of the 20th Century.

Finally, in an era which saw even morality come to be regarded as a relative concept, and which has seen Feminists call for an antirational science and Afrocentrists proclaim a black mathematics, the existence of this little book of rules, with all that it implies about there being an absolute right and wrong in any field, has taken on a gravity which it's authors surely could not have foreseen.  There are other usage books which are perhaps more useful than this one--Fowler's Modern English Usage and Patricia O'Conner's Woe is I come to mind--and there have been more explicit defenders of the linguistic faith--Orwell and Jacques Barzun come to mind--but when you consider the unique popularity and subversively conservative implied message of the book, it must surely rank as the most important book of it's kind ever written.  There, at a minimum, I've just violated White's rules 5, 6, 7, 16 & 17.


Grade: (A+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -ETEXT: Elements of Style William Strunk Jr. (1918)
    -ESSAY: Unmanning Strunk and White (Andrew Ferguson, The Weekly Standard)
    -ESSAY: Strunk and White, move over  (JANE GORDON, The Hartford Courant)
    -ESSAY: Strunk and White Revisited (A. Christopher Hammon)
    -ESSAY: BOOKS ON USAGE: WHOM DO YOU TRUST?  (Jan Freeman, Book Wire)
    -ESSAY: Words and Things  On the 50th anniversary of George Orwell's essay, Politics and the English Language, Andrew Marr assesses the state of political English and finds it in robust good health. (Prospect)
    -REVIEW: 4th Edition (Martin Arnold, NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE)
    -REVIEW: Principles of Plainspeak -- A Concise Updating of Elements (Jack Hart, The San Francisco Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: 4th Edition (Jan Freeman, Book Wire)

    -ESSAY: ON WRITING: LET THERE BE LESS (Arthur Krystal, NY Times Book Review)
    -ETEXT: Politics and the English Language BY George Orwell
    -The Political Writings of George Orwell
    -ESSAY: Words and Things  On the 50th anniversary of George Orwell's essay, Politics and the English Language, Andrew Marr assesses the state of political English and finds it in robust good health. (Prospect)
    -REVIEW: Nicholson Baker: Survival of the Fittest, NY Review of Books
        Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West by M. B. Parkes

If you like this book, try:
    Barzun, Jacques
        -The Culture We Deserve (1990)

    Fowler, H. W. [Henry Watson)
        -A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926)

    O'Conner, Patricia T.
        -Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English (1996)

    Orwell, George
        -A Collection of Essays