the elements of style

A book that helps with craft (and a project assignment)

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White rests on my bookshelf like a couple at the beach. Eyes closed, enjoying the sun, a tan, the sounds of the literary world tossed at sea, though thoroughly relaxing.


We have all, in our mission for clarity and acuteness, turned to these pages.


“The work remains a nonpareil,” boasts the New Yorker, which means nothing quite like it exists.


Like all great style guides, even if you don’t agree with every bit, it can work for you. For example, style guideline number 20, “Avoid Foreign Languages,” which if you know me I nunca sigo, made it into my master’s thesis, as a point of contention.


I have also used, successfully, albeit painstakingly, principle of composition number 18, “Use Definite, Specific, Concrete Language” as a classroom lesson. The sample text, that the authors themselves use, reads twisted and ingenious, which makes sharing it with even advanced English language learning students somewhat of a challenge — but no matter, the point is for students to feel stunned by a text so definite, so specific, so concrete, even if unable to grasp the meaning. (For a nice accompaniment to this concept of writing details, please enjoy this idea from Ted Ed.) ((Have we used enough links yet, yet?))

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What I thought would be fun . . .


. . . would be to list the table of contents and, as if to the stars and the sky, ask the reader to reply to the demands of each chapter or section of the book with a writing exercise: sometimes to find an appropriate quote, to write a short comment, or to compose a paragraph. Ideally, the student would read everything first, then return to fulfill the assignments; but one could as easily read a section, complete the assignment and continue. Either way, here it is, the third edition:


Contents in bold

(and assignment in parenthesis)


Introduction (To begin, write a page of prose about what style means to you, asking at least one question that arose from reading the introduction.)

  1. ELEMENTARY RULES OF USAGE (For each point in this section, find a quote online or from a favorite book that demonstrates the point’s proper usage.)
    • Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s
    • In a series of three of more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last
    • Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas
    • Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause by a comma
    • Do not break sentences in two
    • Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation
    • Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary
    • The number of the subject determines the number of the verb
    • Use the proper case of pronoun
    • A participle phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject
  2. ELEMENTARY PRINCIPLES OF COMPOSITION (For each point in this section, find a quote from an online article, or least favorite book, that demonstrates a violation of the principle.)
    1. Choose a suitable design and hold to it
    2. Make the paragraph the unit of composition
    3. Use the active voice
    4. Put statements in positive form
    5. Use definite, specific, concrete language
    6. Omit needless words
    7. Avoid a succession of loose sentences
    8. Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form
    9. Keep related words together
    10. In summaries, keep to one tense
    11. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end
  3. A FEW MATTERS OF FORM (For each point, of which there are eleven, write a one or two sentence comment.)
  4. WORDS AND EXPRESSIONS COMMONLY MISUSED (For each point, of which there are 121, write one sentence demonstrating the proper use of the commonly misused word or expression. Topic of your choice.)
  5. AN APPROACH TO STYLE (Given the mystical turn the book takes in this final section, you decide: choose ten points and, for each of them, write a short paragraph going against the advice; then choose eleven points and, for each of them, write a short paragraph following the advice well.)
    1. Place yourself in the background
    2. Write in a way that comes naturally
    3. Work from a suitable design
    4. Write with nouns and verbs
    5. Revise and rewrite
    6. Do not overwrite
    7. Do not overstate
    8. Avoid the use of qualifiers
    9. Do not affect a breezy manner
    10. Use orthodox spelling
    11. Do not explain too much
    12. Do not construct awkward adverbs
    13. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking
    14. Avoid fancy words
    15. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good
    16. Be clear
    17. Do not inject opinion
    18. Use figures of speech sparingly
    19. Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity
    20. Avoid foreign languages
    21. Prefer the standard to the off beat

Index (To close, write a page of prose about your last birthday, employing what you learned from this book.)

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