The Elements of Style

style guide

The Elements of Style is a guide to usage in the writing of English. Originally written in 1918 by William Strunk, Jr., it was revised by Strunk and Edward A. Tenny in 1935. In 1959 an expanded and modernized edition was made by E. B. White. This third edition has become the standard text of the book, with further revisions made in 1972, 1979 and 1999. A fourth edition was published in 2000.



Ch. II: Elementary Principles of Composition

  • A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. Writers will in part follow this design, in part deviate from it, according to their skills, their needs, and the unexpected events that accompany the act of composition. Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.
    • Rule 12: Choose a suitable design and hold to it.
  • If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is this: the surest way to arouse and hold the reader's attention 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.
    • Rule 16: Use definite, specific, concrete language.
  • Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
    • Rule 17: Omit needless words.

Ch. III: A Few Matters of Form

  • Colloquialisms. If you use a colloquialism or a slang word or phrase, simply use it; do not draw attention to it by enclosing it in quotation marks. To do so is to put on airs, as though you were inviting the reader to join you in a select society of those who know better.

Ch. IV: Words and Expressions Commonly Misused

  • Fact. Use this word only of matters capable of direct verification, not of matters of judgment. That a particular event happened on a given date that lead melts at a certain temperature are facts. But such conclusions as that Napoleon was the greatest of modern generals or that the climate of California is delightful, however defensible they may be, are not properly called facts.
  • Interesting. An unconvincing word; avoid it as a means of introduction. Instead of announcing that what you are about to tell is interesting, make it so... Also to be avoided in introduction is the word funny. Nothing becomes funny by being labeled so.
  • Like. If every word or device that achieved currency were immediately authenticated, simply on the ground of popularity, the language would be as chaotic as a ball game with no foul lines.
  • Nauseous. Nauseated. The first means "sickening to contemplate"; the second means "sick at the stomach." Do not, therefore, say "I feel nauseous," unless you are sure you have that effect on others.
  • Noun used as verb. Many nouns have lately been pressed into service as verbs. Not all are bad, but all are suspect.
  • That. Which. The use of which for that is common in written and spoken language...Occasionally which seems preferable to that...But it would be a convenience to all if these two pronouns were used with precision. Careful writers, watchful for small conveniences, go which-hunting, remove the defining whiches, and by so doing improve their work.
  • The foreseeable future. A cliché, and a fuzzy one. How much of the future is foreseeable? Ten minutes? Ten years? Any of it? By whom is it foreseeable? Seers? Experts? Everybody?
  • The truth is... The fact is... A bad beginning for a sentence. If you feel you are possessed of the truth, or the fact, simply state it. Do not give it advance billing.
  • Thrust. This showy noun, suggestive of power, hinting of sex, is the darling of executives, politicos, and speechwriters. Use it sparingly.

Ch. V: An Approach to Style


This chapter was written by White

  • Young writers often suppose that style is a garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity; it is nondetachable, unfilterable. The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is himself he is approaching, no other; and he should begin by turning resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style — all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.
  • Writing is, for most, laborious and slow. The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by. A writer is a gunner, sometimes waiting in the blind for something to come in, sometimes roaming the countryside hoping to scare something up. Like other gunners, the writer must cultivate patience, working many covers to bring down one partridge.
  • Writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.
    • Rule 1: Place yourself in the background.
  • The adjective hasn't yet been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.
    • Rule 4: Write with nouns and verbs.
  • Rather, very, little, pretty — these are the leeches that infest of the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words. The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then.
    • Rule 8: Avoid the use of qualifiers.
  • The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day.
    • Rule 9: Do not affect a breezy manner.
  • The line between the fancy and the plain, between the atrocious and the felicitous, is sometimes alarmingly fine. The opening phrase of the Gettysburg address is close to the line, at least by our standards today, and Mr. Lincoln, knowingly or unknowingly, was flirting with disaster when he wrote "Four score and seven years ago." The President could have got into his sentence with plain "Eighty-seven years ago" — a saving of two words and less of a strain on the listeners' powers of multiplication. But Lincoln's ear must have told him to go ahead with four score and seven. By doing so, he achieved cadence while skirting the edge of fanciness. Suppose he had blundered over the line and written, "In the year of our Lord seventeen hundred and seventy-six." His speech would have sustained a heavy blow. Or suppose he had settled for "Eighty-seven." In that case he would have got into his introductory sentence too quickly; the timing would have been bad.
    • Rule 14: Avoid fancy words.
  • Although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one.
    • Rule 16: Be clear.
  • Many shortcuts are self-defeating; they waste the reader's time instead of conserving it. There are all sorts of rhetorical stratagems and devices that attract writers who hope to be pithy, but most of them are simply bothersome. The longest way round is usually the shortest way home, and the one truly reliable shortcut in writing is to choose words that are strong and surefooted to carry readers on their way.
    • Rule 19: Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.
  • A new word is always up for survival. Many do survive. Others grow stale and disappear. Most are, at least in their infancy, more appropriate to conversation than to composition.
    • Rule 21: Prefer the standard to the offbeat.
  • No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader's intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing.
  • Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.

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