The Elements of Style
I. About the Book
a. Written by William Strunk Jr., edited for later editions by E.B. White, and illustrated for the 2005 reprint by Maria Kalman, The Elements of Style has had a long and well-known history among generations of English teachers, students, journalists, writers, and just about anyone who would like to consult an authoritative text on contentious rules of grammar and style.
b. The short collection of principles of grammar and style was first published in 1918 and has been revised, expanded and modernized since. The revisions, however, have retained the humorous quality and much of the original text.
c. The Illustrated edition is divided into 6 chapters.
II. Chapter I. Elementary rules of usage
a. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s.
1. This is true even to words ending in s (as in Charles’s friend)
2. Exception goes for ancient names
b. In a series of three or more terms with a singular conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last (i.e. red, white, and blue)
c. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas. Examples of parenthetical expressions include:
1. numbers and names of months
2. A title or name in direct address before a name and academic degrees and titles that follow a name
3. Non-restrictive clause
4. A main clause preceded by a phrase or subordinate clause
d. Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause
e. Do not join independent clauses with a comma. Use a semi-colon or period. A comma is used, however, when a conjunction is inserted between the clauses.
f. Do not break sentences in two if a comma will suffice or unless the second sentence is constructed to create an emphatic effect.
g. Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, amplification, or an illustrative quotation.
h. Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.
i. The number of the subject determines the number of the verb.
j. Use the proper case of pronoun.
k. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.
The first chapter can be generally divided into two parts: Rules 1-8 pertains to principles in punctuation while the last three rules refer to subject-verb agreement. The mistakes that the authors are advising the readers against committing are actually common ones, done not so much from carelessness but because of the inability of most people to identify grammatical units like phrases and clauses. Knowing these things would have prevented people from misusing and misplacing punctuation marks. There are just too many types of phrases and clauses and ways of constructing them and oftentimes, the average or student writer is not able to spot them easily. The first rule on constructing the possessive form and the right way of using commas in a series may be easily stored into memory the first time one reads about them in the book but the other rules, like determining when two clauses should be joined or not, would always be confusing even with constant practice. Nevertheless, I think Strunk deliberately designed the book to be slim so that it can be carried in one’s pocket, handbag or placed within easy reach in an office desk. Every time doubt or confusion arises, one can simply leaf through the pages and locate the needed rules easily. Also, it helps a lot that the examples given in the book to illustrate the rules are simple and humorous, making the reference material not only easy to understand but also enjoyable to read.
III. Chapter 2. Elementary principles of composition
a. Choose a suitable design and hold to it.
1. foresee or determine a shape of what you are going to write
2. the scheme depends on the type of writing to be accomplished
b. Make the paragraph the unit of composition.
1. a paragraph begins every step in the development of the subject.
2. in dialogue, each speech is usually a paragraph by itself
3. begin each paragraph with either a topic sentence or transition device
c. Use the active voice over the passive as much as possible.
d. Put statements in positive form.
1. make definite assertions
2. placing negative and positive in opposition makes for a stronger structure
3. negative words other than “not” are stronger and thus, could be used instead
4. use auxiliaries only for situations involving real uncertainty
e. Use definite, specific, concrete language
f. Omit needless words (i.e. expressions like “the question as to whether”)
g. Avoid a succession of loose sentences. Use a variety of sentence patterns like joined clauses and sentences.
h. Express coordinate ideas in similar form
1. follow the principle of parallel construction
2. correlative expressions should be followed by the same grammatical construction
i. Keep related words together.
1. confusion and ambiguity result when words are badly placed.
2. The subject of a sentence and the principal verb should not, as a rule, be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning.
3. the subject and principal verb should not be separated by a phrase or clause
4. the relative pronoun should come immediately after its antecedent
5. modifiers should come, if possible, next to the words they modify
j. In summaries, keep to one tense
1. in summarizing a poem, story or novel, use the present tense
2. in summarizing an essay or reporting a speech do not overwork expressions as “he said”
3. in criticism or interpretation of literature, be careful to avoid dropping in summary
k. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end
1. another prominent position in the sentence is the beginning
2. the same principle of applying emphatic words at the end of a sentence applies to the sentences of a paragraph, and the paragraphs of a composition
This chapter tackles more than the basic lessons of punctuation of the first chapter. Chapter 2 deals with principles that writers could benefit from during the actual writing process. This reference would be especially good for journalists and technical report writers. Creative writers have the license to not follow some of the rules for the sake of aesthetics or to create a desired effect although even creative writing would benefit from some of the principles which seem to be dictated by common sense more than a whim of the book authors to dictate to amateur writers as to how to write best. Even creative writers would agree that concrete language, tight sentences, and the omission of certain English expressions that give the effect of verbosity and superfluity are way better than the contrary. Even some good writing has been frowned upon by readers because the writer has chosen to show-off his ability to write long descriptions or innovate from the conventions. Expressing sincerely and simply is still preferred over verbal fireworks which are unabashedly meant to impress the reader. More readers still prefer writers who follow conventional and familiar ways of writing. Readers still like their final sentences or paragraphs to contain the punch that would stay with them long after the reading of a composition. Teachers still expect to read summaries in the present tense.
The authors’ advise to use the active voice over the passive, however, might not go well with technical writers who oftentimes have to write in passive especially in reporting a process wherein which the doer of the action is not as important as the object being acted upon. Nevertheless, a point about the principles written by Strunk and White is that the book does not lay down absolute rules. These are suggestions of good writing but that which may not be applicable in certain cases and so could be altered by the writer. The average or amateur writer like me, however, would benefit from following these principles to the letter.
IV. Chapter 3. A few matters of form
a. When using a colloquialism, slang word or phrase, there is no need to enclose it in quotation marks.
b. Use exclamation points after true exclamations or commands, not after simple statements.
c. Leave plenty of space at the top of manuscripts for the editor to write his directions.
d. When two or more words are combined to form a compound adjective, a hyphen is usually required. Check to dictionary to be sure as to whether to use a hyphen in combing two words into one.
e. Keep the right and left margins the same except when editing is necessary, thus the need for a wider left margin.
f. Do not spell out dates and numerals except in dialogues.
g. A sentence containing an expression in parentheses is punctuated outside the last mark of parenthesis exactly as if the parenthetical expression were absent. The expression within the marks is punctuated as if it stood by itself, except that the final stop is omitted unless it is a question mark or an exclamation point
h. On quotation marks:
1. Formal quotations cited as documentary evidence are introduced by a colon and enclosed in quotation marks.
2. A quotation in apposition or direct object of a verb is preceded by a comma and enclosed in quotation marks.
3. When a quotation is followed by an attributive phrase, the comma is enclosed within the quotation marks.
4. The comma is usually inside the marks.
5. When quoting entire lines of verse or prose, begin on a fresh line and indent.
6. Indirect discourse does not require quotation marks.
7. Proverbial expressions and familiar literary phrases do not require quotation marks.
i. In scholarly work requiring exact references, abbreviate titles that occur frequently, giving the full forms in an alphabetical list at the end.
j. When a word must be divided at the end of a line, consult a dictionary to be certain about how to syllabicate the word.
k. Scholarly usage prefers the use of italics when mentioning the titles of literary works.
The third chapter is probably the one wherein which most writers and editors today feel could not all be strictly enforced among the principles set by Strunk and White since it deals with form, something which is usually relative to the editor or teacher. Grammar and style require obedience to definite and generally accepted rules. Form, however, has to do with the aesthetic effect of words on the page. Teachers, for instance, do not agree that a one-inch margin on either side of the paper is the best way. Others do not like seeing syllabicated words on the page and would prefer if the whole word is simply carried over into the next line. There have also been many citation styles introduced through the years, each of which require the knowledge of so many rules on the part of the writer that putting it as an item in a list such as Strunk’s would not be enough. Even the use of italics when mentioning work titles in an exposition or essay could be changed depending on the teacher.
The chapter, however, is still relevant in many points. The principles regarding the use of slang language, exclamation points and quotation marks are still being followed today. The principles regarding the placement of commas when using quotations and setting off long quotations into a separate line are actually absolute rules followed by editors and publishers today. Finally, Strunk gives the best advice regarding confusions when it comes to words, syllabicating them and hyphenating compounds: check the dictionary to be certain.
V. Chapter 4. Words and expressions commonly misused
a. Some words and expressions are used by writers not so much because of bad English but because of careless writing.
b. The correction of misused words and expressions is replacement through restating the vague generality into definite statements.
c. The chapter contains an alphabetical list of more than a hundred of the most commonly misused words and expressions in the English language.
The entire chapter is a list of words and expressions that people use regularly in both speech and writing but, as the writer states, are oftentimes used incorrectly. The 120+ word collection is like a mini-dictionary and it provides not only definitions of the words and expressions in the list but also explanations of how to use them correctly—sometimes, whether to use them at all, since the list includes words that are supposed to be meaningless or non-existent but are habitually used by people. It is an incomplete list but if one cared to memorize all the words in the list, it would certainly cause a huge improvement on the language of the individual because they are mostly everyday words, simply carelessly and wrongly used.
There are items of which I am guilty of having used erroneously myself until I read them in Strunk’s book like spelling “alright” when it is actually “all right”, not knowing the distinction between “farther” (used for distance) and “further” (for time), or the difference between “that” (defining pronoun) and “which” (non-defining), the bad habit of starting a sentence with “however”, using the phrase “student body” when “students” will do, and saying “utilize” when “use” is the preferable word. There are items that are not even included in my personal everyday vocabulary like “memento” or “fortuitous” although now they have become familiar and I would sure to use them in the near future. The thing about Strunk’s list is that every reader will find his own mistakes in the list to correct.
VI. Chapter 5. An approach to style (with a list of reminders)
a. There is no definite guide to good writing, but certain reminders drawn from a writer’s experience would help.
b. A writer’s style defines his spirit and identity.
c. Place yourself in the background. Do not worry about style in the beginning. Just try to come up with good and solid writing.
d. Write in a way that comes easily and naturally to you, using phrases and words that are readily at hand.
e. Work from a suitable design
f. Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.
g. Revise and rewrite
1. using a word processor can save you time and labor
2. do not be afraid to experiment
h. Do not overwrite. Guard against wordiness.
i. Do not overstate.
j. Avoid the use of qualifiers like “rather”, “very”, “little” and “pretty”.
k. Do not affect a breezy manner.
l. Use orthodox spelling.
m. Do not explain too much.
n. Do not construct awkward adverbs by adding –ly to any adjective that you fancy using.
o. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking especially in long dialogues.
p. Avoid fancy words.
q. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good. Be consistent when using dialect.
r. Be clean in terms of sentence construction.
s. Do not inject opinion into a piece of writing.
t. Use figures of speech sparingly.
u. Do not take shortcuts (i.e. abbreviating) at the cost of clarity.
v. Avoid foreign language. Write in English.
w. Prefer the standard to the offbeat.
This chapter is most useful for writers as the guidelines that the author enumerate specifies common and specific practices and mistakes that most writers, amateurs and professionals, commit every now and then. The most important, for me, is the reminder to simply write in a way that would be easy and comfortable without minding of creating a personal style or even imitating a great writer’s style. I agree that a writer’s personal style just comes through even without striving for it or being conscious of acquiring one. Another notable principle the author mentions is his reiteration of opting for simplicity and avoiding over-explaining, overstating, overwriting, using fancy and foreign words, sounding too opinionated, and using too many figures of speech. Every writer should be encouraged to strive for the simple and conventional when it comes to writing especially if it is technical in nature like writing a research paper or an article for a journal or magazine.
VII. Chapter 6. A list of commonly misspelled words.
a. The chapter lists more than fifty of commonly misspelled words.
Everyone commits spelling errors in writing. A feature of the English language is that words are not always spelled as they are pronounced thus making spelling a lot of English words a feat. With some words, one may know their meanings and their pronunciations would be quite simple, yet spelling them out would prove to be challenging. There are also certain letter arrangements in words that make them troublesome to spell like words with “i” and “e”, one letter following the other. Unsounded letters in words also add to the trouble. Strunk’s list of fifty words is not in any way complete or comprehensive. However, it is a start. It contains words with the “i” and “e” pair, those that deal with the double consonant trouble like in the words “parallel” and “disappoint”, and the unsounded final “e” trouble in words like “privilege”. Some of the words, however, are too easy that it is surprising for me to see them on the list like “lose” and “similar”. Then again, maybe individuals have varying troubles when it comes to spelling words.