M.A. Psychology, Oxford. McKinsey Alum. Founder & Editor at TAoL.
The Elements of Style Review
“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favour you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” Dorothy ParkerDorothy Parker
Reading Strunk’s Elements of Style is like eating your grandmother’s Brussels sprouts. Though you know it’ll make you big and strong when you grow up, you still occasionally feel like stabbing whoever suggested it with a fork.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s some absolute gold inside: omit needless words, write actively and positively, structure your paragraphs and sentences effectively.
And yet, Strunk’s choice to open with ‘the correct use of possessive apostrophes’ is so bizarre, his writing, at times, so concise and so technical, that the book often feels much harder going than it needs to be.
That said, if writing good concise English is important to your success then The Elements of Style is a classic. Its rules are powerful and practical. Its relevance is timeless and enduring. Its ~70 pages have sold over 10 million copies since its first edition in 1918.
In the crunch below I’ve reworked Strunk’s main points into something more digestible. If you’re serious about writing, and enjoy the gist, then do read the original; not only is it something of a rite of passage, you’ll also find more detail and examples than I give below.
The Elements of Style Summary
Write Concisely, Actively and Positively.
Good writing is concise, forcible, and emphatic. To improve yours, remember to:
Write your first draft freely. Now remove needless paragraphs, sentences and words. Don’t aim for a word count; instead make every word count.
✘ The question as to whether
✘ He is a man who
Remember: If it doesn’t improve it, remove it.
Unless for specific emphasis, always write in the active voice.
Passive: He was taken by the police.
Active: The police took him.
Passive: She was deeply touched by the gift.
Active: The gift touched her deeply.
Remember: Rewrite passive phrases actively.
Don’t use ‘not’ to soften your writing. Say what you mean and mean what you say.
✘ He was not honest.
✓ He was dishonest.
✘ She did not remember.
✓ She forgot.
Remember: Rewrite negatives in their positive form.
Structure Your Writing for Easy Reading.
Build a framework that is easy for your reader to climb; ask them to keep as little in their working memory as possible.
STRUCTURE YOUR PARAGRAPHS.
Think of paragraphs as bullet points. Each bullet makes a single important point. Each sub-bullet is a table leg that supports its parent.
For each paragraph: the first sentence should state your main point; the middle sentences should elaborate on and support it; the final sentence should re-emphasise the first.
Use words like ‘again’, ‘therefore’, and ‘for the same reason’ to relate paragraphs back to the larger composition. If you need more than one linking phrase, consider setting them apart in their own paragraph.
STRUCTURE YOUR SENTENCES.
Place emphasis at the end of a sentence to help the reader flow from one to the next.
- This steel is used for making swords, because it is hard. (emphasises hardness)
- Because of its hardness, this steel is used for making swords. (emphasises swords)
Express similar ideas in the same way to make it easy for the reader to compare them.
✘ In spring, summer, or in winter.
✓ In spring, summer, or winter.
Keep related words together to maintain flow and help the reader identify relationships between them.
✘ All the members were not present.
✓ Not all the members were present.
Build Rock Solid Sentences.
Separate standalone sentences with semicolons or periods.
✓ It’s nearly half past five; we can’t reach town before dark.
✓ It’s nearly half past five. We can’t reach town before dark.
Or join them with a comma and a conjunction (e.g., and, but, if).
✘ It’s nearly half past five, we can’t reach town before dark.
✓ It’s nearly half past five, and we can’t reach town before dark.
N.B., this kind of joint creates a ‘loose sentence’. Avoid using too many. Instead try tighter constructions.
✓ The situation is perilous, but there is still one chance of escape.
✓✓ Although the situation is perilous, there is still one chance of escape.
✓✓✓ In this perilous situation, there is still one chance of escape.
Enclose extra information in commas or parenthesis, not periods.
✘ The best way to see a country is to travel on foot. Unless you are pressed for time.
✓ The best way to see a country, unless you are pressed for time, is to travel on foot.
✓ The best way to see a country (unless you are pressed for time) is to travel on foot.
But remember, information you can’t remove without changing a sentence’s meaning is not ‘extra information’.
✘ The candidate, who best meets these requirements, will obtain the place.
✘ The candidate (who best meets these requirements) will obtain the place.
✓ The candidate who best meets these requirements will obtain the place.
And finally, keep the subject of an opening phrase the same as the subject of the main phrase.
✘ Young and inexperienced, the task seemed easy to me.
✓ Young and inexperienced, I thought the task easy.
✘ Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap.
✓ Being in a dilapidated condition, the house was very cheap to buy.
Perfect Your Grammar.
With lists of three or more terms connect each term with commas except the last.
✓ red, white, and blue
✓ honest, energetic, but headstrong
The only exceptions are:
- Business names, e.g., Brown, Shipley and Company; and
- Etc., which is always preceded by a comma even after one term: bread, etc.,
N.b., Abbreviations like ‘etc.’ and ‘jr.’ are also always followed by commas except at the end of a sentence.
Form the possessive singular of nouns with ‘s.
✓ Charles’s …
✓ Burns’s …
✓ witch’s …
- Possessives of ancient proper names in -es and -is
- The possessive Jesus’
- Forms such as for conscience’ sake and for righteousness’ sake
Divide words at line-ends in accordance with their formation and pronunciation.
There are no hard and fast rules, the following guidelines are most frequently applied:
Divide the word according to its formation.
Divide “on the vowel”.
Divide between double letters, unless at the end of the simple form of the word.
Polish Your Style.
Leave a blank line, or equivalent, after the title or heading of a composition.
Do not spell out serial numbers (including dates), write them in figures.
Punctuate a sentence with parentheses as if the parentheses were absent.
- I went to his house (my third attempt to see him), but he had left town.
The final punctuation mark in parenthesis is omitted unless it is a question mark, an exclamation point or the expression is wholly detached.
- He declares (and why should we doubt him?) that he is now certain of success.
- (This is an example of a wholly detached expression in parenthesis.)
Formal quotations are introduced by a colon and enclosed in quotation marks:
- The provision is: “No tax or duty…”
In-line quotes, or those that are the direct object of verbs, are preceded by a comma and enclosed in quotation marks.
- Aristotle says, “Art is an imitation of nature.”
Entire lines of verse are begun on a fresh line and centred but without quotation marks:
Bliss it was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!
Proverbial expressions, colloquialisms, slang and indirect quotes are not enclosed in quotation marks:
- Keats declares that beauty is truth, truth beauty.
- He lives far from the maddening crowd.
Abbreviate references and give them in parenthesis or footnotes, not in the body of the sentence.
Give the titles of literary works in italics with capitalised letters.
Omit the initial ‘A’ or ‘The’ when placing the possessive before them.
✓ Strunk’s Elements of Style.
✘ Strunk’s The Elements of Style.
Do This Next…
That’s it for today! If you enjoyed this post, why not:
- Head over to Faster To Master’s free 8,000 word Language Learning Guide;
- Pick up Pinker’s Sense of Style, Zinnser’s On Writing Well and Clark’s Writing Tools. All three are on my upcoming crunch list; or
- Check out Hemingway and Grammarly (learn more in this great Grammarly review from my friend Bryan). Both apps are awesome ways to instantly and automatically improve your writing.
In the meantime, I’d love to know:
- What did you think of The Elements of Style?
- How many mistakes and improvements did you spot in this post?
- Which important details do you think I missed from the original?
I love being corrected and finding out new things. If you have some feedback or anything to share then please do leave a comment below.