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  • Writer's pictureArnie Bernstein

The Elements of Style: Your Best Grammar Textbook

I used to think that writing grand and elaborate sentences strung together in monumental paragraphs were the foundations of Great Writing. Not “good writing.” Great Writing, with deliberate use of those capital letters. After my student years of welding tortured prose into long and incomprehensible muck I learned just how wrong one pretentious undergraduate could be. The best kind of writing is that which is easy to read. Simplicity is key. That three-word sentence sums what is really “great writing.” I absorbed this powerful lesson courtesy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. This slim volume offers 11 rules of usage, 10 principles of composition, and 21 approaches to style. The book was first published in 1918 when Professor Strunk, an English teacher at Cornell University, created a simple style guide of commonsense writing rules for his students.

How It Happened

Forty years later one of Professor Strunk’s former pupils wrote an essay in The New Yorker praising the book. The author of that article, E.B. White, was asked to update his professor’s tome to reflect modern changes in English grammar and usage. White took on the challenge, though somewhat reluctantly out of his respect for Professor Strunk. The editing of the first section, Rules of Usage, involved just a light tinkering. To flesh out the book and make it more contemporary White added a section with his own 21 rules of style. Of course, E.B. White is that E.B. White, author of the children’s classics Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, and Stuart Little. White also wrote countless weekly pieces for The New Yorker, many of which were curated by heirs of his estate into lively essay books exploring some of White’s favorite themes. E.B. White on Dogs is a delightful look at White’s favorite canine friends. On Democracy is a quiet champion of what we used to call “civics.” The essays, short pieces, and poems in this collection span from 1928 through 1976, a remarkable four decades of American history.

RULE #17

My favorite rule in The Elements of Style is Number 17: omit needless words. Every word should have a function within a sentence. It is word choices, not lengthy sentences nor “big words” that make any piece of writing work. “Vigorous writing is concise,” state Messieurs Strunk and White. “This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” You only need to read a few passages from any of White’s works to see how he puts his lessons into practice. Consider the last two lines from Charlotte’s Web (and no, I am not spoiling the novel if you haven’t read it). “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” There is an elegance to this pair of sentences, an economy in words that sums up both the relationship of Charlotte and Wilbur as well as the book itself. Each word serves a purpose. They fit together in a natural manner that conveys what White wants the reader to take away from his story. Charlotte’s Web remains a classic in children’s literature because the writing serves the book’s story and characters. No fancy word games get in the way of that task. The Elements of Style is a standard guide for both students and professional writers. Whether your homeschool student is creating a story of faraway imaginary places or putting together a history report, the book--which is less than 100 pages--is an essential text in mastering the basic principles of good writing.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White is my writing bible. It should be yours as well. Other writers have waxed poetic on the power of this little book, so I won’t bore you with my adorations. But suffice to say, I’m an Elements of Style geek. I have all four editions on my bookshelf, starting with Strunk’s original 1918 version. I keep a copy of the 4th edition in my computer bag and even have a battered Elements of Style in my car, should I be stuck somewhere without anything to read. You never know when you’re going to need good grammar at the ready.

Download a copy of the Strunk's 1918 First Edition of The Elements of Style from the voluminous web resource of public domain material, The Internet Archive.

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Copyright 2021 by Arnie Bernstein

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