Reading ‘The Elements of Style’ by Strunk & White

July 13, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller


Just about every book on writing I have come across mentions The Elements of Style as a must-have. It’s not even a debate.

Earlier this year, I finally got around the reading the latest edition (4th — published in 2000) of this tiny little book, all 105 pages of it (including the index), and I too was amazed by how much it has to offer to novices and experts alike.

The original version was written by William Strunk Jr for his students in 1918, nearly a century ago, and a revised edition for publication was released in 1935. Strunk died in 1946, and one of his former students, EB White, was commissioned to expand and modernize the text, resulting in the official first edition of The Elements of Style in 1959. I bought the 4th edition about five years ago.

One of the reasons the book has endured is its simplicity and straightforward nature. Strunk is, evidently, really anal about the English language and probably wrote the book to vent all his pet peeves. And he had enough to fill up a whole book!

The first section is about the elementary rules of usage, some of which are fundamentals of the language and others are strong preferences. Ever been confused as to when to use an apostrophe or a colon? This book has the answers. Even if you think you know it all, chances are you’ll still learn a thing or two, or at least be reminded of what is considered “good English.”

The second section is the elementary principles of composition, which is more about recommendations for good writing, such as using the active voice, avoiding loose sentences, tense usage, using specific language (as opposed to vague) and omitting needless words. Much of it is opinion but Strunk and White generally make a strong case as to why you should listen to them. I learned a lot in this part of the book because I have a penchant for convoluted sentences, vagueness and pointless words.

Section three is a short section on form, including the use of colloquial terms, quotations, references and titles, etc. Again, most of this is a matter of opinion, but I personally thought the suggestions made perfect sense.

The fourth section is the juicy part of the book — Words and Expressions Commonly Misused. Starting from “Aggravate/Irritate” and ending at “Would”, Strunk and White run through this useful alphabetical list with laser precision. For example, they advise always shortening the phrase “as to whether” to just “whether”, changing “different than” to “different from”, and explain why the words “flammable” and “inflammable” are often confusing. And I was embarrassed to discover that “unique” means “without like or equal”, and hence there are no degrees of uniqueness (such as “quite unique”, “very unique” or “most unique”).

Do you know the difference between “imply” and “infer” or the difference between “nauseous” and “nauseated?” What about “tortuous” and “torturous”? The list goes on and on, and I’m sure I’ve already broken quite a few of Strunk and White’s rules in this post.

The final section is a general guide on style, which is less specific but helpful nonetheless for those aspiring to be better writers. The book finishes off with a glossary that explains all the stuff I have no idea about, such as what is a “transitive verb”, “pronominal possessive” or “modal auxiliaries.”

The problem with the book, if it can be called a problem, is that it was written so long ago many of the cardinal sins listed have become accepted through common use. For instance, the term “hopefully” is supposed to mean “with hope”, but these days most people use it to convey “I hope” or “it is to be hoped.” Strunk and White call it “wrong” and “silly”, but sometimes that’s just the way language develops over time. Other suggestions, such as substituting “use” for “utilize”, I might ignore, because I think word choice affects the flow of a sentence and sometimes “utilize” provides the rhythm I’m looking for. It’s a matter of opinion and I didn’t always agree with theirs — though it did not hurt to think about it.

Despite its flaws, The Elements of Style is a book I’ll be flipping through regularly from now on. I’ll probably also read it cover to cover once every couple of years as a refresher. Even if I don’t, I’ll keep it somewhere handy and accessible. I’d recommend everyone else to do the same.