The Elements of Style
By William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White
(Longman Publishers, 105 pp)
Audience: Anyone who puts pen to paper (or fingers to keypad)
Scope: Select and salient tidbits on grammar and style
Overview: A friend of mine said recently, “I don’t make New Years resolutions anymore; I just reread Strunk & White.”
Pedantic as that may sound, it’s actually good advice. The Elements of Style has a cultish, revered place among writing books, but its position is well deserved. It’s short, to-the-point, and still relevant nearly a century after it was first conceived (Strunk, then an English teacher at Cornell University and E.B. White’s professor, printed the first edition in 1919). Some of the authors’ advice is basic, almost obvious: “Do not break sentences in two”; in dialogue “a new paragraph begins with each change of speaker.” But upon these elementary dictums grow more complex discussion and ideas. The writing is direct and pithy. Examples follow every rule. Time spent (re)reading this “little book” is time well rewarded.
Key Points: For a short book, The Elements of Style has remarkable breadth. Here are just a few of my favorite pointers.
- “Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language.”
He did not enjoy split pea soup –> He hated split pea soup.
She did not believe him –> She distrusted him.
Time can help –> Time will help.
- “The surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete.”
Fish –> Bluefin Tuna
Festivities –> Live band and fireworks
- “Omit needless words.”
He was the sort of man who –> He
She spoke with great care –> She spoke carefully
Due to the fact –> Because
- “Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.”
Sammie was blind because he received too much oxygen at birth. –> Exposed to too much oxygen at birth, Sammie was blind.
- “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.”
He jumped away quickly –> He leapt away
A strong wind –> A gale
- “Do not overwrite. Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.”
The red, swollen sun set beyond the horizon; day bleeding into night –> The evening sun bled into the horizon.
Read The Elements of Style? Love it? Hated it? What advice stuck with you the most? Please share. I’d love to hear from you.