The Elements of Style: A Timeless Classic

An essential part of any writer’s toolkit, whether writing fiction or non-fiction, is Strunk & White’s thin classic, The Elements of Style. Or as they would prefer to put it, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style is an essential part of a writer’s toolkit.

Packed with tips on the rules of usage and grammar (“place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause”), the 85-page book also contains chapters on the principles of composition and an approach to style.

The section on composition makes 11 points:

  • Choose a suitable design and hold to it.
  • Make the paragraph the unit of composition.
  • Use the active voice.
  • Put statements in positive form.
  • Use definite, specific, concrete language.
  • Omit needless words.
  • Avoid a succession of loose sentences.
  • Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form.
  • Keep related words together.
  • In summaries, keep to one tense.
  • Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

That’s it. A writer could scour blogs and textbooks looking for the most useful tips on composition and Strunk & White nailed them with 11 simple tips.

There is an explanation for each of these points. For example:

Use definite, specific, concrete language. “If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.”

And there is this one:

Put statements in positive form. “Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.”

And,

Use the active voice. “The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.

The last section, An Approach to Style, offers these tips (with brief explanations on each:

  • Place yourself in the background.
  • Write in a way that comes naturally.
  • Work from a suitable design.
  • Write with nouns and verbs.
  • Revise and rewrite.
  • Do not overwrite.
  • Do not overstate.
  • Avoid the use of qualifiers.
  • Do not affect a breezy manner.
  • Use orthodox spelling.
  • Do not explain too much.
  • Do not construct awkward adverbs.
  • Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.
  • Avoid fancy words.
  • Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.
  • Be clear.
  • Do not inject opinion.
  • Use figures of speech sparingly.
  • Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.
  • Prefer the standard to the offbeat.

There is so much more to The Elements of Style. It is an essential companion for any writer.

What is your favorite book on grammar and style?

 

 

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Elements of Style: A Timeless Classic

  1. I adore Strunk & White!

    Did you know that I found an error in one of the editions of S&W! Yes, I sure did — I couldn’t believe it. Published by Penguin Press in 2005 — I looked at that error multiple times, thinking maybe I was somehow wrong, but I was not. Lawdy! The error isn’t in my earlier edition.

  2. Alwat have a copy of Elements around. One of other favorites is an odd book I had to buy for a rhetoric class. When I need to be shaken out of a serious boxed-into-my-box mode, I pull this book out to read, laugh, and feel ready again: http://books.google.com/books/about/Exercises_in_Style.html?id=3aPbGd3hkBAC

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