The Elements of Style

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The Elements of Style
File:Elements of Style cover.jpg
First expanded edition (1959)
Illustrator Maira Kalman (2005 only)
Country United States
Subject American English style guide
Media type Paperback book
Pages 43 pp. (1918), 52 pp. (1920),[1] 71 pp. (1959), 105 pp. (1999)
OCLC 45802070
808/.042 21
LC Class PE1421 .S7 (Strunk)[1]
PE1408 .S772 (Strunk & White)

The Elements of Style is a prescriptive American English writing style guide in numerous editions. The original was composed by William Strunk Jr., in 1918, and published by Harcourt, in 1920, comprising eight "elementary rules of usage", ten "elementary principles of composition", "a few matters of form", a list of 49 "words and expressions commonly misused", and a list of 57 "words often misspelled". E. B. White much enlarged and revised the book for publication by Macmillan, in 1959. That was the first edition of the so-called "Strunk & White", which Time named in 2011 one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923.[2]


Cornell University English professor William Strunk, Jr. wrote The Elements of Style in 1918 and privately published it in 1919, for in-house use at the university. (Harcourt republished it in 52-page format in 1920.)[1] Later, for publication, he and editor Edward A. Tenney revised it as The Elements and Practice of Composition (1935). In 1957, at The New Yorker, the style guide reached the attention of E.B. White, who had studied writing under Strunk in 1919 but had since forgotten "the little book" that he described as a "forty-three-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English". Weeks later, White wrote a feature story about Strunk's devotion to lucid English prose.[3]

Macmillan and Company subsequently commissioned White to revise The Elements for a 1959 edition (Strunk had died in 1946). White's expansion and modernization of Strunk and Tenney's 1935 revised edition yielded the writing style manual informally known as "Strunk & White", the first edition of which sold approximately two million copies in 1959. In the ensuing four decades, more than ten million copies of three editions have been sold.[4] Mark Garvey relates the history of this writing manual in Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style (2009).[5]

Maira Kalman, who provided the illustrations for The Elements of Style Illustrated (2005, see below), asked Nico Muhly to compose a cantata based on the book. It was performed at the New York Public Library in October 2005.[6][7][8]


In The Elements of Style (1918), William Strunk concentrated on specific questions of usage—and the cultivation of good writing—with the recommendation "Make every word tell"; hence, the 17th principle of composition is the simple instruction: "Omit needless words." The book frames this within a triplet credited to an influential lecturer:

  • Omit needless words
  • Use active voice
  • Use parallel construction on parallel concepts

[9] The 1959 edition features White's expansions of preliminary sections, the "Introduction" essay (derived from his magazine feature story about Prof. Strunk), and the concluding chapter, "An Approach to Style", a broader, prescriptive guide to writing in English. He also produced the second (1972) and third (1979) editions of The Elements of Style, by which time the book's length had extended to 85 pages.

The third edition of The Elements of Style (1979) features 54 points: a list of common word-usage errors; 11 rules of punctuation and grammar; 11 principles of writing; 11 matters of form; and, in Chapter V, 21 reminders for better style. The final reminder, the 21st, "Prefer the standard to the offbeat", is thematically integral to the subject of The Elements of Style, yet does stand as a discrete essay about writing lucid prose.[3] To write well, White advises writers to have the proper mind-set, that they write to please themselves, and that they aim for "one moment of felicity", a phrase by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94).[citation needed] Thus Strunk's 1918 recommendation:

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 avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.

— "Elementary Principles of Composition", The Elements of Style[10]

The fourth edition of The Elements of Style (2000), published 54 years after Strunk's death, omits his stylistic advice about masculine pronouns: "unless the antecedent is or must be feminine".[11] In its place, editor E. B. White[White died 1985] reports: "Currently, however, many writers find the use of the generic he or his to rename indefinite antecedents limiting or offensive." Further, the re-titled entry "They. He or She", in Chapter IV: Misused Words and Expressions, advises the writer to avoid an "unintentional emphasis on the masculine".[12][13]

Components new to the fourth edition include a foreword by Roger Angell, stepson of E. B. White, an afterword by the American cultural commentator Charles Osgood, a glossary, and an index. Five years later, the fourth edition text was re-published as The Elements of Style Illustrated (2005), with illustrations by the designer Maira Kalman. This edition excludes the afterword by Charles Osgood and restores the first edition chapter on spelling.


The Elements of Style was listed as one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923 by Time in its 2011 list.[2] Upon its release Charles Poor writing for The New York Times called it "a splendid trophy for all who are interested in reading and writing."[14] American poet Dorothy Parker once proclaimed, "If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy."[15]

Criticism of Strunk & White has largely focused on claims that it has a prescriptivist nature, or that it has become a general anachronism in the face of modern English usage.

In criticizing The Elements of Style, Geoffrey Pullum, professor of linguistics at Edinburgh University, and co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), said that:

The book's toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules ... It's sad. Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write however or than me or was or which, but can't tell you why.[16]

Pullum has demonstrated, for example, that the authors misunderstood what constitutes the passive voice, and he criticized their proscription of established and unproblematic English usages, such as the split infinitive and the use of which in a restrictive relative clause.[16] He further criticized The Elements of Style in Language Log, a blog written by linguists about language, for promoting linguistic prescriptivism and hypercorrection among Anglophones, and called it "the book that ate America's brain".[17]

The Boston Globe's review described The Elements of Style Illustrated (2005), with illustrations by Maira Kalman, as an "aging zombie of a book ... a hodgepodge, its now-antiquated pet peeves jostling for space with 1970s taboos and 1990s computer advice".[18]

In 2011, Tim Skern wrote that The Elements of Style "remains the best book available on writing good English".[19]

In 2013, Nevile Gwynne reproduced The Elements of Style in his work, Gwynne's Grammar. Britt Peterson of the Boston Globe wrote that it was a "curious addition".[20]


  • Elements of Style (composed in 1918 and privately printed in 1919)
  • The Elements of Style (1920), William Strunk, New York: Harcourt – 52-page publication of the original composed in 1918 and privately printed in 1919.[1]

(Because the text of Strunk's original is now in the public domain and freely available on the Internet, publishers can and do reprint it in book form.)

Strunk & White
Strunk & Cowan
  • The Elements of Style (2006 et seq.), Cowan writes: "My revisions to the original are founded on the principle that rules of usage and style cannot be drawn out of thin air, nor constructed a priori according to 'logic'; they must depend on the actual practice of those who are generally acknowledged to be good writers."[21]

See also

Several books were titled paying homage to Strunk's, for example:


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "The elements of style" [copyright 1920]. Library of Congress Catalog Record (LCC). Retrieved 2014-05-14.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Skarda, Erin (August 16, 2011). "Elements of Style". All-TIME 100 Nonfiction Books. Time, Inc. Retrieved 2014-05-14.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 Strunk, William, Jr.; White, E. B. (2009). The Elements of Style (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon. p. xiii. ISBN 978-0-205-31342-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Strunk and White (2009), p. x.
  5. Garvey, Mark (2009). Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 1-4165-9092-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Eicher, Jeremy (October 21, 2005). "'Style' Gets New Elements". The New York Times. LearningNetwork: Teachers.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Neary, Lynn (November 2, 2005). "'Elements of Style' Goes Beyond Words". NPR Books.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Nico Muhly". Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Strunk and White (2009), p. 23.
  10. William Strunk (1918). The Elements of Style.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Strunk, William; E. B. White (1972) [1959]. The Elements of Style (2nd ed.). Plain Label Books. pp. 55–56. ISBN 978-1-60303-050-2. Retrieved 2009-07-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Strunk, William; E. B. White (1999) [1959]. The Elements of Style (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon. p. 60. ISBN 978-0-205-31342-6. OCLC 41548201. Retrieved 2009-07-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Compare entry "They." in Chapter IV of the 1918 edition. See also gender-specific pronouns.
  14. "Books of the Times". 1959-06-09. Retrieved 2015-04-10.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "'The Elements of Style' Turns 50". The New York Times. Retrieved 2015-04-10.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. 16.0 16.1 Pullum, Geoffrey K. (April 17, 2009). "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice". The Chronicle of Higher Education. 55 (32): B15. Retrieved 2009-04-12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Pullum, Geoffrey (2009). "Sotomayor loves Strunk and White" (June 12). "Drinking the Strunkian Kool-Aid" (June 6). "Room for debate on Strunk and White" (April 25). Retrieved 2009-06-13.
      See also "prescriptivist poppycock" (tag): other postings on the subject by Pullum, Mark Liberman, and others.
  18. Freeman, Jan (October 23, 2005). "Frankenstrunk". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2009-04-12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (subscription required)
  19. Skern Tim (2011). Writing Scientific English: A Workbook. (UTB 3112) Vienna (facultas.wuv). p. 35.
  20. Britt Peterson (31 August 2014). "Why we love the language police". Boston Globe. Retrieved 09 January 2015.
  21. Cowan, John Woldemar (2006). "Introductory". The Elements of Style (et seq. ed.).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links