The Elements of Style

This little book, the Elements of Style, originally by William Strunk and later revised and expanded by Elwyn Brooks White. Strunk taught an English course with the original version of this book as the required textbook at Cornell University in 1919. White was one of the students took that class. Decades later, White was asked to revise and contribute to a new edition of this book, after Professor Strunk passed away.

The version I am holding in hand now is the fourth edition from 1999. Multiple sources have informed me that this book has been broadly adopted as one of the required readings for certain college classes in the USA. In my opinion, anyone who communicates in English would benefit greatly from this book.

It is my general observation that in the business setting we generate and circulate far too many badly written, confusing at best, and often misleading notes and documents. We do so on the grounds that we do not have spare time to improve our writings or the luxury to do so in a fast-paced work environment. Bad writing unfortunately often leads to a great loss of productivity. Unwillingness to improve one’s language skill and laziness to communicate with clarity is evil, as it adds a great burden on the readers. I highly recommend reading this book. I envisage myself revisiting it many times again in future.

The process of reading this book was filled with both delight and anxiety. I have been frightened and ashamed that many errors and bad practices of written English listed here were committed by me previously. I have also discovered many jewels of good practices.

Chapter one covers the elementary rules of use of the English language. I spotted one misuse often made immediately. It is “Charles’s friend”, not “Charles’ friend”. That is the first rule: form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s. People also often confuse “it’s” the contraction of “it is” with “its”, the possessive. Another mis-use I committed often many years ago and Daniel Rueckert helped me to overcome is: do not join independent clauses with a comma when forming a single compound sentence from multiple clauses that are grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction. The correct punctuation is a semicolon.

Chapter two focuses on principles of compositions. The book suggests:

    • Choose a suitable design and hold to it;
    • Make the paragraph the unit of composition;
    • Use the active voice;
    • Put statements in positive form;
    • Use definite, specific, concrete language;
    • Omit needless words;
    • Avoid a succession of loose sentences;
    • Express coordinate ideas in similar form;
    • Keep related words together;
    • In summaries, keep to one tense;
  • Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

At the level of composing a sentence in English, I must have violated the last rule here many times before, as I was blindly unaware of this, despite my knowledge and practice of placing the most prominent sentences at the beginning and end of a paragraph. One pair of examples given in the book:

  1. Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways.
  2. Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.

The second option clearly places more emphasis on the “hardly advanced in fortitude” part of the message.

I strongly disagree of shorthand spelling of some English words, for example, writing through as thru. It is bad practice and unforgivable, even on road signs. Laziness of spelling should not be tolerated. If we choose to be lazy with words used to describe our thoughts, we would inevitably end up in a downhill spiral and find ourselves eventually becoming too lazy with clear thinking.

White added a new chapter on An Approach to Style to this little book. White describes:

Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzgerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. All writers, by the way they use the language, reveal something of their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation – it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito.

White’s advice on what style is not about:

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 non-detachable, unfilterable.

On how to approach style:

The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is an expression of self, and should turn 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.

Further, White gives us a list of suggestions to help us find our way to the desired style:

  • Place yourself in the background.
  • Write in a way that comes naturally.
  • Work from a suitable design.
  • Write with nouns and verbs. (Not with adjectives and adverbs.)
  • Revise and rewrite.
  • Do not overwrite.
  • Do not overstate.
  • Avoid the use of qualifiers.
  • Do not affect a breezy manner.
  • Use orthodox spelling.
  • Do not explain too much.
  • Do not construct awkward adverbs. (for example, tiredly, tangledly.)
  • Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.
  • Avoid fancy words. (I observe that technical writings from non-native English speakers often tend to use fancy words, which in turn hurts the readability of the papers. Better to use the simple ones.)
  • Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.
  • Be clear. (Clarity is the top priority, regardless of the form of communication, speaking or writing, in my view.)
  • Do not inject opinion. (This is very challenging.)
  • Use figures of speech sparingly.
  • Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.
  • Avid foreign languages.
  • Prefer the standard to the offbeat.

I am grateful that teachers like Strunk and writers like White pass their knowledge on the usage of English language to us in a meticulously concise and precise writing style conveyed in this book. Without it, I might stay much longer ignorant of the errors I made and would not be able to progress.

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