Review: The Elements of Style

The Elements of Style Illustrated by William Strunk Jr., E.B. White, Maira Kalman

“English rhetoric on the head of a pin.”

I don’t consider myself to be a particularly good writer, and I wanted to get some of the basics down. Stunk and White is the classic text, so what better place to start, though this edition (2005) has updated certain anachronisms from the original.

E.B. White is famous, and has helped make his former teacher famous as well. White’s introduction is worth the price of the book, like eating the frosting off the cake before delving into the substance. He describes Strunk’s original book, which White has edited and expanded: “Will himself had hung the tag ‘little’ on the book; he referred to it sardonically and with secret pride as ‘the little book,’ always giving the word ‘little’ a special twist, as though he were putting a spin on a ball.” (p. xii) I would quote the introduction entirely, for the sheer enjoyment of White’s treatment of Strunk, but I’m striving to “Omit needless words!” and I must resort to pleading that you read it for yourself, simply for the pleasure of it, a student’s fond memories of a beloved teacher.

Part one is “The Rules,” part 2, “The Principles”; after “A Few Matters of Form” is a list of “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused,” a quite lengthy section, then White’s contribution, “An Approach to Style,” and finally, a spelling list.

I found this book to be helpful. I have started to actually think about what I write, and not just settle for whatever spills out. A few ambiguous matters were settled once and for all (“‘s” for a possessive after a name that ends with “s”). Strunk’s humor is understated and witty, and in all the book is enjoyable as well as rigorous.

Some have decried Kalman’s contribution, but I found it an entertaining diversion, especially to extended grammatical lists.

If you intend to write about anything, or if you simply wish to read a delightful book about writing, pick up this book. It’s a classic for a reason.

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