The Elements of Style (fourth edition) by William Strunk and E.B. White

Who can confidently say what ignites the mind? Who knows why certain notes in music are capable of stirring the listener deeply, though the same notes slightly rearranged are impotent? These are high mysteries, and this chapter is a mystery story, thinly disguised.

styleI am fairly confident I was asked to use this book in school at some point; but I am quite sure I never read it cover to cover before this. And I’m afraid I can’t recall where I saw it recommended. But I’m very glad I checked it out from my local library, and I think I will go ahead and buy a copy too.

I read the fourth edition, which has four authors. Roger Angell writes the foreword, describing his stepfather E.B. White’s working style. White wrote the introduction for the 1979 edition. The original text was by William Strunk, unaccompanied; Strunk’s student White reworked his professor’s text after the latter’s death, adding a few paragraphs and updating some of the references. An afterword by Charles Osgood wraps things up in the style of the whole book and his three colleagues: brief, succinct, and sparkling.

This is a shockingly enjoyable little book considering that it is “just” a style guide that offers advice about… the overuse of adjectives (especially in dialog), passive voice, brevity, clarity, and the joining of dependent and independent clauses. The Strunk-and-White text is what it exhorts us to be: brief, clear, humble but stylish. I was absolutely charmed throughout.

This is a very small book. Even with its four authors in this edition, it requires the glossary and index to clear 100 pages, and is pocket-sized. However, even being so tiny, it was the first book I’ve read in a long time that required two separate quarter-page bookmarks that I filled with my notes. Thus this long review. Strunk would almost certainly wish for greater brevity, but I’ve included lots of quotations for you to enjoy.

The Elements of Style got me reflecting. I think it’s beautiful that there is such a thing as style in writing; I think it’s lovely that a place like Shelf Awareness needs and has a “house style,” a set of decisions made in advance and for consistency about how we will all write (or, more so, be edited). I love that writing allows for variation within the realm of strict correctness, and that even though this complicates things it also allows for added artistry in what is truly the art of communication.

I thought of my high school English teacher more than once as Strunk discussed style, vs. the clear-cut rules of grammar. Mrs. Smith agreed that we should all learn the (rather more boring) proper, correct, and formal way to write before we began experimenting; the breaking of rules is for the gifted who have earned that right by putting in their time with less exciting work. I will never forget her fine example (and think of her every time I encounter it): Hemingway writes in The Sun Also Rises that Robert Cohn “was married by” the first woman who came along, and this use of the passive voice is both purposeful and effective. Until her students become the next Hemingway, however, Mrs. Smith instructed that we should strive for active over passive verbs. This is the same principle with which Strunk writes,

“But,” you may ask, “what if it comes natural to me to experiment rather than conform? What if I am a pioneer, or even a genius?” Answer: then be one. But do not forget that what may seem like pioneering may be merely evasion, or laziness – the disinclination to submit to discipline. Writing good standard English is no cinch, and before you have managed it you will have encountered enough rough country to satisfy even the most adventurous spirit.

Let me continue: I marked no end of droll phrasings and thought I’d share a few.

White shares a memory of his Professor Strunk:

He felt it was worse to be irresolute than to be wrong. I remember a day in class when he leaned far forward, in his characteristic pose – the pose of a man about to impart a secret – and croaked, “If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, say it loud! If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!”

(Strunk was so economical with his words, White tells us, that he had to re-lengthen his speech by repetitions.)

Flammable. An oddity, chiefly useful in saving lives. The common word meaning “combustible” is inflammable. But some people are thrown off by the in- and think inflammable means “not combustible.” For this reason, trucks carrying gasoline or explosives are now marked FLAMMABLE. Unless you are operating such a truck and hence are concerned with the safety of children and illiterates, use inflammable.

Or, on the question of shall vs. will:

A swimmer in distress cries, “I shall drown; no one will save me!” A suicide puts it the other way: “I will drown; no one shall save me!” In relaxed speech, however, the words shall and will are seldom used precisely; our ear guides us or fails to guide us, as the case may be, and we are quite likely to drown when we want to survive and survive when we want to drown.

This is not the only time he considers grammar a matter of life and death.

Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expected to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram. Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity and be clear!

The tragedies, indeed! I love the tone. And how lovely are these thoughts about the art of writing in general:

Writing is, for most, laborious and slow. The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by.


Writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.

I think I will need to put that up on the bulletin board over my desk.

Some of Strunk’s usage preferences are either not ones I share, or are dated in their particulars and thus less helpful. But the bulk of the advice he gives is both correct and delightfully expressed. Also, it bears noting that his tips are meant to apply to more formal or academic writing; he repeatedly allows that certain forms (a love letter is one example he uses more than once, which is again charming) will take different usage.

As entertaining as The Elements of Style is to read, its utility is alive and well: I found a revelation in rule #11 on page 75, regarding verbs and adverbs in dialog. Something that has always bothered me in my reading, but that I couldn’t have articulated, has been made plain to me and now I will be able to criticize more clearly when I encounter it (and, I hope, avoid it in my own writing). Thank you, Professor Strunk.

Rating: 8 split infinitives.

10 Responses

  1. This is quite simply a wonderful essay, proof positive of a literary passion; I sometimes wonder from whence that arose and, though not surprised, I still marvel at the outcome.

  2. […] by two rivers? That’s a passive voice usage to compete with Hemingway’s famous one that I keep referring to. I like what is implied by that last line: Karr didn’t know about sidewalks til she left […]

  3. […] how I felt about Strunk & White, and my admiration for Dillard, this is […]

  4. […] The Elements of Style, Strunk & White – nonfiction. Still an outstanding style guide, and surprising funny, enjoyable reading. […]

  5. […] A delightful, short, rich book about writing, deserving of (literal) pocketing alongside Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. […]

  6. […] as the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, and as half of Strunk & White, as in The Elements of Style. He wrote for The New Yorker for some six decades, and is one of our finest essayists. This is an […]

  7. […] for readability, why on earth Line by Line when we have Strunk & White’s Elements of Style?? “Omit needless words,” they famously wrote; and that perfect sentence is oft repeated […]

  8. […] words, but I’m going to say it: I think this is the most enjoyable craft book I have read. Strunk & White and Stephen King are very good but McPhee wins […]

  9. […] The Elements of Style, Strunk and White […]

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