Review: The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr.

As a teen and young adult studying English, language, and literature classes in high school and University I never thought I would find myself 20 years later reading books to refresh my memory about grammar. After recently reading Stephen King’s On Writing, I tackled The Elements of Style second edition, by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White. Elements of Style is concise, only 78 pages, and yet I wrote 13 single-spaced pages of notes. It is a necessary tool for students in high school, college, or university; best friend to writers.

In Elements of Style you will learn about:
-7 Elementary Rules of Usage
– 11 Elementary Principles of Composition
– A Few Matters of Form
– Words and expressions to avoid
– 21 points concerning style

The two biggest points that will forever be stuck in my mind are:
1. Use definite, specific, concrete language
2. Omit needles words

Two simple rules, that will be going through my mind as I write, and edit.

I laughed to myself when Strunk adamantly announces to always avoid the phrase “the fact that”, because it is one I use often. His example effectively demonstrates how a sentence is better without this phrase:
Instead of “Owing to the fact that” use “since”.
Instead of “In spite of the fact that” use “though” or “although”.

Another phrase I am guilty of using is “who is”, such as: “His brother, who is a member of the same firm”. Strunks offers this solution: “His brother, a member of the same firm”. I was shocked to see the uselessness of “the fact that” and “who is”. It was truly an AHA! moment for me.

The same rule is applied to using “whether” instead of “as to whether”, and “yet” instead of “as yet”. OMIT needles words!

I use “but” too often, and was happy to learn of a simple solution: “A loose sentence using but can usually be converted into a sentence using although.”

Strunk gives a long list of words to avoid: each and every one, enthuse, factor, feature, finalize, hopefully (oopsy guilty of that one too), importantly, interesting, literal, literally, meaningful, personalize, possess, the truth is, the fact is, utilize  :[
Most of the words he says to avoid are words I use often. I’m sure they do have their proper time and place in writing, but would have to agree with Strunk that avoiding them often creates a stronger sentence, and more believable writing.

Some of my favorite quotes:

“Writing is, for most, laborious and slow. The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by.”

Ideas are birds flying by. Such a beautiful thought. Fast and fleeting. One must scratch the idea down on paper before it soars away.

“The use of language begins with imitation. The infant imitates that sounds made by its parents; the child imitates first the spoken language, then the stuff in books.”

Our thoughts are what we know – inspiration comes from what we read, hear, see, taste, and touch. King and Strunk agree the first step to becoming a good writer is to be a good reader.

Many of the words and phrases that King and Strunk say to avoid are used by writers who doubt their skill, or doubt the reader’s intelligence. I have never thought of it that way before. As a writer who used those words and phrases often, I do see now how I used them due to lack of confidence.

I’ll leave you with this thought:

“If one is to write, one must believe – in the truth and worth of the scrawl, in the ability of the reader to receive and decode the message. No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader’s intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing.”

I believe Strunk has helped to improve my skills. Have you read this “little book”? What did you think of it? Have you learned anything from this blog post? I would love to hear your thoughts.


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