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Book:  The Elements of Style: Classic Edition

Author:  William Strunk Jr.

Purchase:  PrinteBook

Citation:  Strunk, W. & Morelli, R. (2018). The elements of style. San Luis Obispo, California Vancouver, British Columbia: Spectrum Ink Publishing.

Big Takeaways and Key Ideas:

  • Author George Orwell offered some poignant advice on grammar and style. These suggestions are worth remembering and should be followed if you want to see an improvement in the clarity and quality of your writing: 1) Never use a long word where a short one will do, 2) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out, 3) Never use the passive when you can use the active, 4) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or jargon if you can think of an everyday English equivalent to use instead, and 4) A great writer will ask himself four questions: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? (pg. 14)

  • Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s regardless of consonant. These usages are correct: Charles’s friend, Burns’s poems, the witch’s malice. (pg. 15)

  • In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last. For example: red, white and blue. Gold, silver, or copper. In the names of business firms omit the last comma: Brown, Shipley & Co. (pg. 16)

  • It is not necessarily good style to make all of your sentences too uniformly compact and periodic. An occasional loose sentence prevents the style from becoming too formal and gives the reader a bit of relief. (pg. 20)

  • Do not join independent clauses by a comma - the proper punctuation mark is a semicolon: It is nearly half past five; we cannot reach town before dark. If a conjunction is inserted, the proper mark is a comma: It is nearly past five, and we cannot reach town before dark. (pg. 21)

  • Many bland descriptive sentences can be made lively and more empathic by substituting a verb in the active voice for such expressions as “there is” or “could be.”: Instead of “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” use “Dead leaves covered the ground.” (pg. 33)

  • Put statements in positive form. Make definite assertions in your writing. Avoid bland, colorless, hesitating, non-committal language. Instead of “He was not very often on time” use “He usually came late.” Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; he wishes to be told what is. Use “dishonest” over “not honest” and “forgot” over “did not remember.” (pg. 34)

  • Use definite, specific, concrete language. Use “It rained every day for a week” over “A period of unfavorable weather set in.” and “He grinned as he pocketed the coin” over “He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward.” The surest method of arousing and holding the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete. (pg. 35) 

  • Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words and a paragraph should contain no unnecessary sentences. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail, but that he make every word tell. Use “whether” over “the question as to whether”, “no doubt” over “there is no doubt but that” and “this subject” over “this is a subject which.” In particular, the expression “the fact that” should be deleted from every sentence in which it occurs. (pg. 37)

  • Avoid a succession of loose sentences. This rule refers especially to loose sentences of a particular type - those consisting of two coordinate clauses. Although single sentences of this type may be acceptable, a series soon becomes monotonous. (pg. 39)

  • Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end. The proper place in a sentence for the word, or group of words, that you want to make the most prominent is usually the end. Use “Because of its hardness, this steel is principally used in making razors” over “This steel is principally used for making razors, because of its hardness.” (pg. 45)

  • Capitalize the first word in every numbered clause. For example: “The witness asserts under oath that: (1) He saw the man attacked; (2) He saw him fall; (3) He saw the defendant flee.” (pg. 50)

  • Capitalize a title when it precedes a person’s name. When the title follows the person’s name, it is a common noun and it should be written in lowercase. Examples: 1) Donald Trump, president of the U.S., toured the city. 2) The mayor gave President Trump a tour of the city. 3) The president of the United States vetoed the bill. (pg. 52)

  • The cardinal points (north, south, east, west) are common nouns and not capitalized. But when used to distinguish a specific location or region, they are proper nouns and should be capitalized. 1) I will be traveling in the West. 2) If you go west in California, you will reach the ocean. 3) The North fought against the South. (pg. 54)

  • Certainly. Used indiscriminately by some writers to intensify any and every statement. A mannerism of this kind, bad in speech, is even worse in writing. Use “It is the truth” over “It is certainly the truth” and “He must eat to survive” over “He certainly must eat to survive.” (pg. 71)

  • Never use “different than.” Substitute “different from”, “other than”, or “unlike”. (pg. 72)

  • Try not to use “factor.” Factor is an expression that can usually be replaced by something more direct and idiomatic. Use “He won the match by being better trained” over “His superior training was the great factor in his winning the match.” Feature is another word similar to “factor” - it usually adds nothing to the sentence. (pg. 73)

  • Do not use “possess” as a substitute for have or own. Use “He had great courage” over “he possessed great courage.” Same thing with “system”. Use “Dayton has adopted government by commission” over “Dayton has adopted the commission system of government.” (pg. 79)

  • To express habitual or repeated action, the past tense, without would, is usually sufficient. Use “Once a year he visited the old mansion” instead of “Once a year he would visit the old mansion.” (pg. 85)

  • Grammar is concerned with how words are used, and how words are combined into sentences and paragraphs. Style refers to an additional set of rules writers and editors should follow to achieve consistency and the construction and tone of the writing. Simply put, grammar rules will help you to write sentences that make sense, and style rules will help you to turn those sentences into a polished final draft. It might be possible to write a sentence in a dozen ways, and all might be grammatically correct; but one construction might be clear and flow better than the rest. Style rules help to ensure that your writing expresses your ideas in the clearest and most effective manner possible. (pg. 93)

  • For more than a century,  you have been taught you should never start a sentence with a conjunction. Those conjunctions are:  and, but, so, yet, or, for, and nor. This prohibition may had developed out of grammar instructors wanting to help students avoid writing sentence fragments. But times have changed, and more style guides now advised that it is okay to start a sentence with a conjunction, as long as the practice is not overused. (pg. 95)

  • The rule against ending a sentence with a preposition goes back decades, but is now obsolete. Just because you can end a sentence with a preposition doesn't mean that you should. A sentence May read better if you eliminate the ending preposition and rewrite the sentence; or sometimes that preposition isn't even needed. Use “Where are you” as opposed to “where are you at?” (pg. 96)

  • Generally, avoid writing long paragraphs, and especially avoid the convoluted and verbose style is commonly found in early twentieth-century literature. Large blocks of text are daunting to readers and suggest that what is to come will be boring or difficult to grasp. Shorter paragraphs are more inviting and easier to digest. Try to limit paragraphs to four or five senses, or about 100 to 125 words. (pg. 97)

  • For the same reason that you should avoid writing lengthy paragraphs, you should write crisp, concise sentences that are easy to read and follow. Verbose sentence constructions were common in the past; but readers today process information more readily when it is presented in small chunks. (pg. 98)

  • Some inexperienced writers will place two words with the same or very similar meetings next to one another in a sentence. These “double terms” are redundant and add word clutter. If you notice a duplicated word or phrase in your writing and you can delete it without changing the meaning of the sentence, then you should remove it. Examples include “This fruit must be washed and cleaned” and “The Deeds must be entered and recorded.” (pg. 99)

  • Using the word “that” in a sentence is often not necessary it is not wrong to include the extra word in most cases, but modern style guides suggest omitting that when you can do so without affecting the clarity of the sentence. (pg. 103)

  • The term “false subjects” refers to phrases such as: it is, it was, it will be, there are, there is, there was, there were, and there will be. They usually occur at the beginning of a sentence and often displace the real subject. This is a lazy habit, and it can cause ambiguity and awkward syntax. In nearly every instance, a sentence that starts with a false subject can be re-written for an improved and grammatically correct result. (pg. 106)