The Elements of Style

I don’t know about you guys, but I practically used E.B. White (best known for his children’s books Charlotte’s Web and Stewart Little) and William Strunk Jr.’s  Elements of Style, as my 11th grade AP English bible. Although this style guide was originally published in 1920, it remains one of the most influential reference books on style to this day. The Elements of Style has been updated since its original publication to accommodate changes in language and style; the most recent addition was published in 2009. This guide stresses the idea that you cannot break the rules until you learn them. As such, The Elements of Style organizes basic grammatical and stylistic rules in neat, succinct chapters that are incredibly easy to reference. My favorite thing about the book is that it’s so small, yet it contains so much information. I wrote about 40 essays for my AP English Language class in high school, and Strunk & White’s guide was always in my backpack, waiting to be referenced for those silly questions I was too afraid to ask a teacher. After frequently referencing this book for a couple of months, I felt comfortable enough with the rules to experiment with my writing style. I cannot thank The Elements of Style enough for its tremendous impact on my writing.

Here’s an excerpt from a section titled Omit Needless Words

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.
Many expressions in common use violate this principle:
the question as to whether whether (the question whether)
there is no doubt but that no doubt (doubtless)
used for fuel purposes used for fuel
he is a man who he
in a hasty manner hastily
this is a subject which this subject
His story is a strange one. His story is strange.

 And here is the entire Elements of Style online! 

3 thoughts on “The Elements of Style

  1. davinadhani April 20, 2015 / 1:05 pm

    This is probably not a good thing, but I think I grew most as a writer in my 11th grade AP English class, and I have not learned quite so much in an English class since then. We also used the Elements of Style and that book was incredible. I think the best thing about that class was the emphasis that our teacher placed on learning rhetoric and etymology (for the SAT).

    Regardless of whether you’re in college or high school, rhetoric is always valuable to know, because it’s used across all different industries. It’s been a while since I’ve had a class that discussed these topics as they relate to style, so I’m glad we’re doing it now in this class. Rhetorical devices, tropes and etymology are my absolute favorite parts of learning about the English language and it all began with those textbooks and my phenomenal teacher in high school. Also, I appreciate you putting up that link, I’ll probably use it in the future.


  2. Allison Miehl April 21, 2015 / 5:11 am

    Surprisingly, I never had to use Elements of Style in AP English. We did read On Writing by Stephen King, though, and he gave some of the same advice. He said to write concisely. I remember a section where he talked about how adverbs are often unnecessary. Sometimes it can be hard to determine whether a word is necessary or superfluous, but I think deciding which words to keep and which ones to eliminate often help shape a writer’s style and voice.


  3. jesslangone April 21, 2015 / 5:54 pm

    I haven’t been required to read The Elements of Style either, but I look forward to reading it now. I read On Writing by King and that has helped me start eliminating useless words in my writing. I think in fiction writing especially, writers get excited in descriptions and action that they try to enhance their writing by making it superfluous, but writing concisely makes reading easier for the intended audience, no matter who the audience is. I think maybe when it comes to word counts in essays, or even when submitting pieces that will be paid by the word, writers add unnecessary words to extend their piece. This makes a piece longer, but it ends up lacking substance.


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