The Elements of Style

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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.


Third Edition, Macmillan, 1979, ISBN 0-024-18220-6

Ch. II: Elementary Principles of Composition

  • 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 should avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every sentence tell.
    • Rule 17

Ch. IV: Words and Expressions Commonly Misused

  • Fact. Use this word only of matter 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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 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
  • A breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that pops into his head 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
  • No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader's intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing.

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