“Omit Needless Words” — Thoughts on The Elements of Style

For no reason in particular, I was thinking about The Elements of Style the other day. I’m quite fond of my hardcover copy of The Illustrated Elements of Style.

The New York Times (“‘The Elements of Style’ Turns 50”) shares some of the history behind the archetypal book on writing style —

“William Strunk Jr. wrote and self-published the famous “Little Book” as a professor of English. White, his student at Cornell in 1919 and later an author and essayist, first revised the text four decades later after returning it to prominence with an essay in The New Yorker. … White revised the book again in 1972 and 1979. A fourth edition was published in 2000 with a foreword by White’s stepson, Roger Angell. Since 1959, the publisher says, 10 million copies have been sold.

Strunk began with 7 rules of usage (White would add 4) and 11 principles of composition. He followed them with examples of commonly misused words and expressions. In the end it remains a “little book.” (Rule 17. Omit needless words!)”

There’s something to be said about being well-versed in rules of composition and usage, even if ultimately the writer chooses to take creative departures from those proscribed rules. And after all, someone has to champion those rules, per comments from E.B. White:

“Unless someone is willing to entertain notions of superiority, the English language disintegrates, just as a home disintegrates unless someone in the family sets standards of good taste, good conduct and simple justice.”

And Maria Popova (Brainpickings.org: “A Brief History of The Elements of Style and What Makes It Great”) profiles a new book chronicling its history — Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. It sounds like some good reading for the EoS obsessives of the world:

“From how White, a former student of Strunk’s, resurrected the original text after Strunk’s death, to White’s thoughtful, stubborn, heartfelt, and often snarky correspondence with his editors and readers, including many never-before-published letters, to original interviews with some of today’s most beloved writers, including Adam Gopnik, Nicholas Baker, and Elmore Leonard, the slim but fascinating and wholehearted volume offers a rare peek inside the creative process behind one of the most iconic meta-meditations on the English language.”

Why does The Elements of Style still matter to writers? Here’s a thoughtful passage from Stylized to think about —

“As practical as it is for helping writers over common hurdles, The Elements of Style also embodies a worldview, a philosophy that, for some, is as appealing as anything either author ever managed to get down on paper. Elements of Style is a credo. And it is a book of promises — the promise that creative freedom is enabled, not hindered, by putting your faith in a few helpful rules; the promise that careful, clear thinking and writing can occasionally touch truth; the promise of depth in simplicity and beauty in plainness; and the promise that by turning away from artifice and ornamentation you will find your true voice.”

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And here’s The Elements of Style in rap video form. It’s … different. Good job with the mustaches, though.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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