The Elements of Style
Third Edition
William Strunk Jr.
E. B. White

E. B. White

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The Elements of Style



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The Elements of Style

by William Strunk Jr.
With Revisions, an Introduction, and a Chapter on Writing
by E. B. White
Third Edition

Copyright © 1979, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.
Earlier editions © 1959 and © 1972 by Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.

The Introduction originally appeared, in slightly different form, in The New Yorker, and was copyrighted in 1957 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.

The Elements of Style, Revised Edition, by William Strunk Jr. and Edward A. Tenney, copyright 1935 by Oliver Strunk


“Omit needless words!” cries the author on page 23, and into that imperative Will Strunk really put his heart and soul. In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself—a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had outdistanced the clock. Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times.

Compare to:

Rudyard Kipling

But a shadow of gloom seems to hang over the page, and you feel that he knows how hopeless his cause is. I suppose I have written the fact that a thousand times in the heat of composition, revised it out maybe five hundred times in the cool aftermath. To be batting only .500 this late in the season, to fail half the time to connect with this fat pitch, saddens me, for it seems a betrayal of the man who showed me how to swing at it and made the swinging seem worth while.

All through The Elements of Style one finds evidences of the author’s deep sympathy for the reader. Will felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, a man floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get his man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope.


Elementary Rules of Usage

Note that it is customary to omit the comma in

6 April 1958

The last form is an excellent way to write a date; the figures are separated by a word and are, for that reason, quickly grasped.

Restrictive clauses, by contrast, are not parenthetic and are not set off by commas. Thus,

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

Here the clause introduced by who does serve to tell which people are meant; the sentence, unlike the sentences above, cannot be split into two independent statements. The same principle of comma use applies to participial phrases and to appositives.

The contents of a book is singular. The contents of a jar may be either singular or plural, depending on what’s in the jar—jam or marbles.

Give this work to whoever looks idle.

In the last example, whoever is the subject of looks idle; the object of the preposition to is the entire clause whoever looks idle.

The difference between a verbal participle and a gerund is not always obvious, but note what is really said in each of the following.

Do you mind me asking a question?

Do you mind my asking a question?

In the first sentence, the queried objection is to me, as opposed to other members of the group, putting one of the questions. In the second example, the issue is whether a question may be asked at all.


Elementary Principles of Composition

In some cases the best design is no design, as with a love letter [...] But in most cases planning must be a deliberate prelude to writing. The first principle of composition, therefore, is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape.

A sonnet is built on a fourteen-line frame, each line containing five feet. Hence, the sonneteer knows exactly where he is headed, although he may not know how to get there. Most forms of composition are less clearly defined, more flexible, but all have skeletons to which the writer will bring the flesh and the blood. The more clearly he perceives the shape, the better are his chances of success.

Note [...] that when a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.

If your every sentence admits a doubt, your writing will lack authority. Save the auxiliaries would, should, could, may, might, and can for situations involving real uncertainty.

If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.



The principle that the proper place for what is to be made most prominent is the end applies equally to the words of a sentence, to the sentences of a paragraph, and to the paragraphs of a composition.


A Few Matters of Form

The hyphen can play tricks on the unwary, as it did in Chattanooga when two newspapers merged—the News and the Free Press. Someone introduced a hyphen into the merger, and the paper became The Chattanooga News-Free Press, which sounds as though the paper were news-free, or devoid of news. Obviously, we ask too much of a hyphen when we ask it to cast its spell over words it does not adjoin.




Words and Expressions Commonly Misused

And / or. A device, or shortcut, that damages a sentence and often leads to confusion or ambiguity.

Contact. As a transitive verb, the word is vague and self-important. Do not contact anybody; get in touch with him, or look him up, or phone him, or find him, or meet him.

Enormity. Use only in the sense “monstrous wickedness.” Misleading, if not wrong, when used to express bigness.

In formal writing, etc. is a misfit. An item important enough to call for etc. is probably important enough to be named.

Facility. Why must jails, hospitals, schools suddenly become “facilities”?

Finalize. A pompous, ambiguous verb.

But some people are thrown off by the in- and think inflammable means “not combustible.” For this reason, trucks carrying gasoline or explosives are now marked FLAMMABLE. Unless you are operating such a truck and hence are concerned with the safety of children and illiterates, use inflammable.

Get. The colloquial have got for have should not be used in writing. The preferable form of the participle is got, not gotten.

Hopefully. This once-useful adverb meaning “with hope” has been distorted and is now widely used to mean “I hope” or “it is to be hoped.” Such use is not merely wrong, it is silly.

However. Avoid starting a sentence with however when the meaning is “nevertheless.” The word usually serves better when not in first position.

When however comes first, it means “in whatever way” or “to whatever extent.”

In the last analysis. A bankrupt expression.

-ize. Do not coin verbs by adding this tempting expression. [...] Never tack -ize onto a noun to create a verb. Usually you will discover that a useful verb already exists. Why say “moisturize” when there is the simple, unpretentious word moisten?

The use of like for as has its defenders; they argue that any usage that achieves currency becomes valid automatically. This, they say, is the way the language is formed. It is and it isn’t. [...] If every word or device that achieved currency were immediately authenticated, simply on the ground of popularity, the language would be as chaotic as a ball game with no foul lines.

Meaningful. A bankrupt adjective. Choose another, or rephrase.

Nauseous. Nauseated. The first means “sickening to comtemplate”; the second means “sick at the stomach.” Do not, therefore, say “I feel nauseous,” unless you are sure you have that effect on others.

As a simple test, transform the participles to verbs. It is possible to upset something. But to offput? To ongo?

One of the most. Avoid this feeble formula. [...] There is nothing wrong with the grammar; the formula is simply threadbare.

-oriented. A clumsy, pretentious device, much in vogue. Find a better way of indicating orientation or alignment or direction.

The word people is best not used with words of number, in place of persons. If of “six people” five went away, how many people would be left? Answer: one people.

Personalize. A pretentious word, often carrying bad advice. Do not personalize your prose; simply make it good and keep it clean.

Secondly, thirdly, etc. Unless you are prepared to begin with firstly and defend it (which will be difficult), do not prettify numbers with -ly.

A swimmer in distress cries, “I shall drown; no one will save me!” A suicide puts it the other way: “I will drown; no one shall save me!” In relaxed speech, however, the words shall and will are seldom used precisely; our ear guides us or fails to guide us, as the case may be, and we are quite likely to drown when we want to survive and survive when we want to drown.

Thanking you in advance. This sounds as if the writer meant, “It will not be worth my while to write to you again.”

The truth is . . . The fact is . . . A bad beginning for a sentence. If you feel you are possessed of the truth, or of the fact, simply state it.

No one need fear to use he if common sense supports it. The furor recently raised about he would be more impressive if there were a handy substitute for the word. Unfortunately, there isn’t—or, at least, no one has come up with one yet. If you think she is a handy substitute for he, try it and see what happens. Alternatively, put all controversial nouns in the plural and avoid the choice of sex altogether, and you may find your prose sounding general and diffuse as a result.

Tortuous. Torturous. A winding road is tortuous, a painful ordeal is torturous. Both words carry the idea of “twist,” the twist having been a form of torture.

Students of the language will argue that try and has won through and become idiom. Indeed it has, and it is relaxed and acceptable. But try to is precise, and when you are writing formal prose, try and write try to.

Verbal. Sometimes means “word for word” and in this sense may refer to something expressed in writing. Oral (from Latin ōs, “mouth”) limits the meaning to what is transmitted by speech. Oral agreement is more precise than verbal agreement.

There is not a noun in the language to which -wise cannot be added if the spirit moves one to add it. The sober writer will abstain from the use of this wild additive.

Compare to:

George Orwell: “The Principles of Newspeak”


An Approach to Style
(With a List of Reminders)

In this final chapter, we approach style in its broader meaning: style in the sense of what is distinguished and distinguishing. Here we leave solid ground. Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? Who knows why certain notes in music are capable of stirring the listener deeply, though the same notes slightly rearranged are impotent? These are high mysteries, and this chapter is a mystery story, thinly disguised. 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 the young writer may shape his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.



Young writers often suppose that style is a garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity; it is nondetachable, unfilterable.

Compare to:

Tom Robbins

Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.



The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.



Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers.

When you overstate, the reader will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in his mind because he has lost confidence in your judgment or your poise.

8. Avoid the use of qualifiers.

Rather, very, little, pretty— these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words. The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then.

12. Do not construct awkward adverbs.

Adverbs are easy to build. Take an adjective or a participle, add -ly, and behold! you have an adverb. But you’d probably be better off without it.



The special vocabularies of the law, of the military, of government are familiar to most of us. Even the world of criticism has a modest pouch of private words (luminous, taut), whose only virtue is that they are exceptionally nimble and can escape from the garden of meaning over the wall. [...] The young writer should learn to spot them—words that at first glance seem freighted with delicious meaning but that soon burst in air, leaving nothing but a memory of bright sound.



If one is to write, one must believe—in the truth and worth of the scrawl, in the ability of the reader to receive and decode the message. No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader’s intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing.

Compare to:

Roger Zelazny

text checked (see note) Oct 2008

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