Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style

By Maeve Maddox

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style receives frequent mention in articles about writing.

Originating as a classroom study aid prepared by Cornell English Professor William Strunk in 1918, this widely-used desk reference of English usage, form, and style continues to influence writers after a hundred years.

After Strunk died in 1946, essayist E.B. White was asked to augment and edit the guide for a wider audience. When White died in 1985, Elements was in its Third Edition.

The current Fourth Edition has been, according to White’s stepson Roger Angell, “modestly updated” to include references to word processors and to acknowledge feminist concerns about pronoun usage.

Elements has grown from Strunk’s original 43 pages to 105, but is still a compact, no-frills handbook for the writer in a hurry for answers to common questions.

The guide is arranged in five sections:

I. Elementary Rules of Usage
II. Elementary Principles of Composition
III. A Few Matters of Form
IV. Words and Expressions Commonly Misused
V. An Approach to Style

The first four sections are easily skimmed, and the index will lead you quickly to the point of grammar you want. A 60-word glossary defines such basic terms as “gerund” and “linking verb.”

The fifth section, “An Approach to Style,” provides a useful reminder that there is more to producing distinctive prose than just getting the grammar right:

There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course,

According to White, style is a mystery, an entity that arises from the sum of an individual’s writing:

Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzgerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper.

The Elements of Style deserves its long popularity as a concise guide to correct usage. It can equip a writer with the “elements,” but “style” must arise from the personality and mental furnishings of the writer.

A searchable version of Elements (Third Edition) can be found at

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7 Responses to “Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style

  • Jay Wagers

    Great review. This is a must-have for anyone’s library. I still have mine from the 10th grade. By the way, I’m 39 now;-).

  • Zach Everson

    The greatest writing book out there. I’ve read it a few times.

  • Maria

    An excellent book although I’ve read plenty of reviews that aren’t so positive about it.

    My favorite edition is the illustrated one. Hard covered, filled with unusual illustrations related to the examples. Makes me smile when I browse through it.

  • Maeve

    The Elements of Style has no doubt exercised plenty of negative influence on literalists who have tried to model all of their writing on its precepts.

    Guides like Elements are tools, not templates. Writers who follow any guide slavishly are like the boy in the tale who carries butter home under his hat on a hot day because that’s how his mother told him to carry something else.

  • Mara

    Check out “Spunk & Bite: A writer’s guide to punchier, more engaging language & style” by Arthur Plotnik. It is a fun read, and very helpful to writers who are trying to spice up their prose. It also confronts the sometimes dreary guidance in “Elements of Style.”

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