The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White (of Charlotte’s Web fame) is one of the most popular books on writing in the US. This slim volume (a mere 92 pages in the 3rd edition that’s on my bookshelf) has been around in various incarnations for about 100 years, and in it’s original form was William Strunk’s attempt “to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin.” So said E.B. White in the introduction to his revision of Professor Strunk’s original work, and I think he succeeded, for the most part.
The Elements of Style (or Strunk and White, as my first college English professor called it) is organized in five chapters, so my review will follow that organization:
I. ELEMENTARY RULES OF USAGE: This chapter lists several useful guidelines (not rules) for some of the punctuation and grammar people tend to stumble over, such as how to use commas in lists and with parenthetic information, and how to choose the correct personal pronoun. You may find yourself stumbling over some of the terms used if your grammar lessons are only a dim memory, but the examples usually make things clear.
II. ELEMENTARY PRINCIPLES OF COMPOSITION: The majority of the principles in this section offer useful advice, especially to those engaged in “practical” writing, such as “Use the active voice,” and “Put statements in positive form.” However, a few of them sound good on first reading, but don’t hold up to close scrutiny. For example, number 12 states emphatically “Choose a suitable design and hold to it.” That’s all well and good, but the following paragraphs of explanatory text don’t offer much concrete guidance about what a suitable design looks like.
III. A FEW MATTERS OF FORM: This chapter is a bit of a stew of mechanical advice (how to use exclamations, page formatting advice, handling quotations). While the information is fundamentally sound, it seems like this chapter was a bit of a dumping ground for bits of information that Strunk and White couldn’t fit in elsewhere.
IV. WORDS AND EXPRESSIONS COMMONLY MISUSED: Again, most of the advice here is quite good, but in some cases it seems like the authors’ personal preferences are intruding (for example, they don’t like starting sentences with “However”), and in others, common usage has overtaken the grammar purists. I, for one, have reluctantly given up the fight to keep “hopefully” from being used to mean “I hope.” In this case, the battle is over, and the purists have lost.
V. AN APPROACH TO STYLE: Here the emphasis shifts from the accepted rules of grammar and usage to the more subjective matter of style. “Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind?” If I knew the answer to that, I’d bottle it and make a fortune. But even in this more subjective arena, Strunk and White attempt to offer some advice, and for the most part, it is good. “…the first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none—that is, place yourself in the background.” In other words, don’t spend nearly as much time worrying about your “style” as you do about your content. Be sure you’re writing as clearly, correctly, and concisely as you can, and your style will take care of itself. Also, keep in mind that “revising is part of writing… . Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery.” As Hemingway more bluntly put it, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
Conclusion and recommendation: As much as some revere The Elements of Style, I recommend it with a few reservations. It’s a good, non-threatening resource to have on the bookshelf; my battered copy of the 3rd edition is frequently the first authority I turn to when seeking answers to grammar, usage, and style questions. (I should probably upgrade to the newer 4th edition.) While it’s worth having around, the shortcomings I mentioned above keep it from being the be-all-and-end-all of writer’s references. I give it a 4 out of 5.
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