Criticism | 'The Elements of Style' by Strunk & White

How a Thin, Little Volume Fixed a Lifetime of Lazy Scholarship

© 2017 Vernon Miles Kerr

I didn’t learn about The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. While  until twenty years after my brief sojourn in the Creative Writing program at San Francisco State University (then San Francisco State College.)  I came upon it as  the 41 year-old father of a college freshman.  Our eldest son Aaron, had just entered our local community college and was showing me the newly purchased textbooks he had arrayed across the top of his bedroom dresser. Conspicuously surrounded by, and leaving a gap between the weighty books on Sociology, English, Psychology and History was a tiny, thin paperback. “What’s this little guy?” I asked, picking it up and opening it to the Introduction.  I was immediately intrigued, as I usually am, by something that promises a short-cut method of achieving  results that normally require some effort. Here is the introduction to the 1920 edition, available for the Kindle, free of charge, from








COPYRIGHT, 1918, 1919, BY




   “This book aims to give in brief space the principal requirements of plain English style. It aims to lighten the task of instructor and student by concentrating attention (in Chapters II and III) on a few essentials, the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated.

In accordance with this plan it lays down three rules for the use of the comma, instead of a score or more, and one for the use of the semicolon, in the belief that these four rules provide for all the internal punctuation that is required by nineteen sentences out of twenty.”

Strunk, William. The Elements of Style (p. 1). . Kindle Edition.

In my high school and early college days, “being a writer” was my dream, but the act of writing and pouring through peevish grammar texts was drudgery.   So I set about to learn writing by osmosis.  I enjoyed reading and the typical curriculum for an English major in college requires a lot of that.  I read and read, always with a virtual ear opened for writing and rhetorical style.  I was confident that my little shortcut to scholarship would work just as well as tedium and elbow grease.

Arriving from community college into the upper-division  English program at State — at the time, reputedly, one of the best Creative Writing programs in the country — I experienced a rather abrupt and rude awakening.  Getting papers back from professors with generous red edit marks not only for grammar mistakes but also stilted and trite phrasing was bad enough.  The capper was when a Biology Lab Teaher’s Assistant  — not even a real professor — gave me a “D” on some required lab notes because of several spelling and grammatical errors.   Not that this was some knd of “come to Jesus” moment, when I vowed to  abandon my lazy ways, but I did determine to inculcate the advice and correction of professors and to keep a dictionary handy, looking up any word, the spelling of which I was not absolutely certain.

As life would have it, I dd not go into the writing business after college but I did get a lot of writing practice in my three pre-retirement careers as bank officer, sales and marketing manager and finally, computer software developer and manager. Each of these careers often involved the requirement to produce formal documentation.  Thanks to that initial reading of my son’s copy of The Elements of Style, I think I was able to pull it off in a credible manner and even help others to tighten up and improve their own business writing. Since that initial exposure to “Stunk & White”  both I, and my wife have purchased several copies of this little manual and have kept them handy for not-infrequent reference and  occasional entertainment.  Never tedious or boring, it’s always amazing how the book’s clear and  staccatto presentation of what it represents as the most important tools of intelligent English discourse, is actually fun reading.  Here, from the Kindle Edition, are the subjects covered in the Table of Contents. Hopefully they will whet the reader’s appetite for Strunk’s witty and sometimes humorous expansion of each subject and also the contributions of Strunk’s posthumous editor and former student, the poet E.B.White.

I. Introductory

II. Elementary Rules of Usage

  1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s
  2. In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last
  3. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas
  4. Place a comma before a conjunction introducing a co-ordinate clause
  5. Do not join independent clauses by a comma
  6. Do not break sentences in two. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject

III. Elementary Principles of Composition

  1. Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic
  2. As a rule, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence; end it in conformity with the beginning
  3. Use the active voice
  4. Put statements in positive form
  5. Use definite, specific, concrete language
  6. Omit needless words
  7. Avoid a succession of loose sentences
  8. Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form
  9. Keep related words together
  10. In summaries, keep to one tense

Strunk, William. The Elements of Style .  . Kindle Edition.

The reader might wonder how a curt and abbreviated overview of English writing style can be of any value to someone whose journey through academia wasn’t as lackadaisical as my own.   Brief as it may be, Strunk & White’s little volume is an excellent refresher course for even the most accomplished and diligent scholar of English. The free Kindle version is an excellent research tool, but E.B.White’s later resurrection and  editorial annotation of Professor Strunk’s, originally mimeographed and hand-stapled, handout is well worth the price of one of Amazon’s  hard copies.