William Strunk, Jr.

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William Strunk Jr. (1 July 1869 – 26 September 1946), was a professor of English at Cornell University and author of the The Elements of Style (1918). After revision and enlargement by his former student E. B. White, it became a highly influential guide to English usage during the late 20th century, commonly called Strunk & White.

Life and career

Strunk was born and reared in Cincinnati, Ohio, the eldest of the four surviving children of William and Ella Garretson Strunk.[1] He earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Cincinnati in 1890 and a PhD at Cornell University in 1896. He spent the academic year 1898–99 at the Sorbonne and the Collège de France, where he studied morphology and philology.[2]

Strunk first taught mathematics at Rose Polytechnical Institute in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1890–91.[3] He then taught English at Cornell for 46 years, disdaining specialization and becoming expert in both classical and non-English literature.[4] In 1922 he published English Metres, a study of poetic metrical form, and he compiled critical editions of Cynewulf's Juliana, several works of Dryden, James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, and several Shakespearean plays.[5] Strunk was also active in a gathering known as the Manuscript Club, an "informal Saturday-night gathering of students and professors interested in writing," where he met "a sensitive and deeply thoughtful young man named Elwyn Brooks White."[6]

In 1935–36, Strunk enjoyed serving as the literary consultant for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film Romeo and Juliet (1936). In the studio he was known as "the professor," in part because, with his three-piece suit and wire-rim spectacles, he "looked as though he'd been delivered to the set from MGM's casting department."[7]

In 1918, Strunk privately published The Elements of Style for the use of his Cornell students, who gave it its nickname, "the little book." Strunk intended the guide "to lighten the task of instructor and student by concentrating attention ... on a few essentials, the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated." In 1935, Strunk and Edward A. Tenney revised and published the guide as The Elements and Practice of Composition (1935).

In his New Yorker column of July 27, 1957, E. B. White praised the "little book" as a "forty-three-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English."[8] Macmillan and Company then commissioned White to revise the 1935 edition for republication under Strunk's original title. His expansion and modernization sold more than two million copies. Since 1959, total sales of three editions in four decades has exceeded ten million copies.[9]

In 1900, Strunk married Olivia Emilie Locke, with whom he had three children, including the noted musicologist, Oliver Strunk.[10] William Strunk retired from Cornell in 1937. In 1945 he suffered a mental breakdown, diagnosed as "senile psychosis," and died less than a year later at the Hudson River Psychiatric Institute in Poughkeepsie, New York.[11] Strunk's Cornell obituary noted that his friends and former students remembered "his kindness, his helpfulness as a teacher and colleague, [and] his boyish lack of envy and guile."[12]


  1. Garvey, 3–4. William Strunk Sr., teacher and lawyer, was the son of German immigrants and fluently bilingual.
  2. Garvey, 5–6.
  3. Who Was Who, vol. 2.
  4. Cornell University, Necrology of the Faculty, in Garvey, 199.
  5. Garvey, 25.
  6. Garvey, 9.
  7. Garvey, 170.
  8. The Elements of Style, Fiftieth Anniversary Edition (2009), xiii.
  9. The Elements of Style Fiftieth Anniversary Edition (2009), x; Garvey, xvi. An audio edition read by Frank McCourt was released in 2008; a video version, created in the late 1980s, was narrated by Charles Osgood; and an operatic song cycle, The Elements of Style: Nine Songs, was composed by Nico Muhly. (A reviewer of the latter noted that "the operatic style of the piece rendered the lyrics all but unintelligible." Garvey, xvi–xvii.
  10. Garvey, 6. Strunk's daughter, Catherine, became a medical doctor and a research pediatrician and author at Yale. Her twin brother, Edwin, worked as an engineer in the automobile industry.
  11. Garvey, 194–99. Funeral services were held at Cornell University, and he was buried in a family plot in Pleasant Grove Cemetery, just north of the university.
  12. Cornell University, Necrology of the Faculty, in Garvey, 200.

Further reading

  • William Strunk Jr., et al., The Classics of Style (Cleveland: The American Academic Press, 2006).
  • Mark Garvey, Stylized : A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009).

External links