The Elements of Style

William Strunk Jr.

The Elements of Style

William Strunk Jr.

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The Elements of Style Summary

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In his classic reference book The Elements of Style (1920), William Strunk Jr. explains that writers must first understand writing’s rules before they can break them. He offers clear, instructive advice on proper sentence composition. Strunk composed this book in 1918 and self-published before seeking traditional publication. The book was originally intended to be a textbook for his own English class, but the principles proved to be widely useful. It was later edited and developed by a former student, E. B. White.

Popular with fiction and non-fiction writers, the book explores how to enliven and improve sentence structure and clarity using plain, clear English. The book, although endearingly popular, received a mixed reception from critics for being too prescriptive, and its authority is still questioned today in some literary circles.

The Elements of Style is short, precise, and to the point – much in keeping with the rules of brevity and clarity it promotes. According to Strunk, students learn better through their own work and tailored instruction, as opposed to wading through large textbooks. He says students only require a sound understanding of the writing basics before their instruction centers around improving their individual work. Strunk does not suggest students should only follow his writing rules – in fact, he makes it clear that students keen on developing their writing skills should later look at how literary masters break the rules well.

After introducing the basic tenet of the book, Strunk teaches by example. Section two is dedicated to “Elementary Rules of Usage.” Here, Strunk introduces readers to the most basic grammar rules. He explains, firstly, how to form possessive singulars of nouns – an example given is “Charles’s friend.” Strunk notes there are exceptions, and that pronominal possessives, such as “hers, its, theirs,” have no apostrophe.

Comma usage occupies a large portion of this section. Strunk takes us, in a clear, easily digestible way, through all the fundamental rules of comma usage – for example, when a semicolon or full stop is more appropriate, and how incorrect comma usage can make sentences impossible to understand. This section slowly builds upon the previous examples given, breaking down every rule into brief, authoritative statements. By the end of the section, Strunk has covered the most rudimentary elements of sentence construction.

The third section, “Elementary Principles of Composition,” develops the rules learned from the previous chapter, focusing on composing engaging, clear sentences. This section is naturally more detailed than the previous given more explanation is needed.

Strunk explains how to construct a basic paragraph – how to keep a topic to one paragraph, and how and when to divide paragraphs into smaller sections. He gives examples of how one might structure styles of writing particularly relevant to students, for example, essays, reports, novel reviews, and discussions pertaining to historical events.

Strunk then shows how to properly open and close paragraphs to retain reader attention and aid comprehension. He explains how to use words and phrases to link paragraphs together – again, the focus remains on clarity and brevity whatever the topic. He reminds the reader, particularly, never to end a paragraph on a meandering or redundant point.

Another key point he makes is how to use the active voice and why it should be used whenever possible. The active voice engages readers more, giving a sense of immediacy, which the passive voice lacks. The active voice is also less wordy – again, in keeping with the book’s principles.

Strunk covers other rules, such as omitting needless words which do not benefit the reader’s understanding, how to make writing forceful and positive, keeping sentences varied and engaging, keeping to one tense, and ensuring similar ideas are grouped together. With these rules, Strunk shows students how to use prescriptive rules effectively.

Strunk then touches on matters of form – for example, how to use quotation marks, question marks, and parentheses. Referencing and italicizing are also covered. To round out his lists of rules, Strunk includes a section on commonly misused words, which often make sentences wordier, and commonly misspelled words. Again, he reinforces his key argument – until students understand quality sentence structure, they cannot play around with the rules.

The Elements of Style demonstrates that it is possible to write well-honed, lively, and concise sentences with flair and confidence. Although the book has been refined through multiple editions, the examples used are timeless and can be appreciated by all readers. Strunk’s aim is for all who read this book to be able to construct grammatically correct sentences and paragraphs, ensuring their messages are properly communicated to their readers – which is, after all, what writing is all about.

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