Highlights from “The Elements of Style” (William Strunk Jr.)

Published on January 15, 2018 (↻ April 17, 2024), filed under and (RSS feed for all categories).

Another part of my random, untargeted book highlight series, here are some snippets from William Strunk Jr.’s The Elements of Style (1920).

Emphasis as it appears in the original work may be missing, and my own edits, though marked, may be broad. Then, important: By sharing these highlights I neither implicitly endorse nor recommend respective authors and their views. Assume that I know little of the authors, and that I have a nuanced view on the matter. (The only thing the highlights can tell is that—much like the books themselves—for some reason or other I found them of interest.) When a detailed understanding of my views is important, ask me.


  1. I. Elementary Rules of Usage
  2. II. Elementary Principles of Composition
  3. III. A Few Matters of Form
  4. IV. Words and Expressions Commonly Misused
  5. V. Spelling

I. Elementary Rules of Usage

The cover of “The Elements of Style.”

1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ’s. […]

Charles’s friend

2. In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last. […]

red, white, and blue

3. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.

The best way to see a country, unless you are pressed for time, is to travel on foot.

This rule is difficult to apply; it is frequently hard to decide whether a single word, such as however, or a brief phrase, is or is not parenthetic. If the interruption to the flow of the sentence is but slight, the writer may safely omit the commas.

If a parenthetic expression is preceded by a conjunction, place the first comma before the conjunction, not after it.

He saw us coming, and unaware that we had learned of his treachery, greeted us with a smile.

The candidate who best meets these requirements will obtain the place.

Here the clause introduced by who does serve to tell which of several possible candidates is meant; the sentence cannot be split up into two independent statements.

4. Place a comma before a conjunction introducing a co-ordinate clause. […]

The situation is perilous, but there is still one chance of escape.

[…] and is the least specific of connectives. Used between independent clauses, it indicates only that a relation exists between them without defining that relation.

Two-part sentences of which the second member is introduced by as (in the sense of because), for, or, nor, and while (in the sense of and at the same time) likewise require a comma before the conjunction.

5. Do not join independent clauses by a comma.

If two or more clauses, grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction, are to form a single compound sentence, the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon. […]

It is nearly half past five; we cannot reach town before dark.

[…] this simple method of indicating relationship between statements is one of the most useful devices of composition.

Note that if the second clause is preceded by an adverb, such as accordingly, besides, then, therefore, or thus, and not by a conjunction, the semicolon is still required.

6. Do not break sentences in two.

[…] do not use periods for commas.

I met them on a Cunard liner several years ago. Coming home from Liverpool to New York.

7. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.

Walking slowly down the road, he saw a woman accompanied by two children.

Young and inexperienced, the task seemed easy to me.
Young and inexperienced, I thought the task easy.

II. Elementary Principles of Composition

8. Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic.

The object of treating each topic in a paragraph by itself is, of course, to aid the reader. The beginning of each paragraph is a signal to him that a new step in the development of the subject has been reached.

As a rule, single sentences should not be written or printed as paragraphs.

In dialogue, each speech, even if only a single word, is a paragraph by itself; that is, a new paragraph begins with each change of speaker.

9. As a rule, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence, end it in conformity with the beginning.

Again, the object is to aid the reader. […] the most generally useful kind of paragraph […] is that in which

  • the topic sentence comes at or near the beginning;
  • the succeeding sentences explain or establish or develop the statement made in the topic sentence; and
  • the final sentence either emphasizes the thought of the topic sentence or states some important consequence.

More commonly the opening sentence simply indicates by its subject with what the paragraph is to be principally concerned.

10. Use the active voice.

[…] avoid making one passive depend directly upon another.

Gold was not allowed to be exported. It was forbidden to export gold[.]

The habitual use of the active voice makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative principally concerned with action, but in writing of any kind.

11. Put statements in positive form. […]

Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.

He was not very often on time.
He usually came late.

Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; he wishes to be told what is.

12. Use definite, specific, concrete language.

Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.

A period of unfavorable weather set in.
It rained every day for a week.

[…] if in reading Carlyle we have almost the sense of being physically present at the taking of the Bastille, it is because of the definiteness of the details and the concreteness of the terms used. It is not that every detail is given; that would be impossible, as well as to no purpose; but that all the significant details are given, and not vaguely, but with such definiteness that the reader, in imagination, can project himself into the scene.

“This superiority of specific expressions is clearly due to the effort required to translate words into thoughts. […] when an abstract word is used, the hearer or reader has to choose, from his stock of images, one or more by which he may figure to himself the genus mentioned. In doing this, some delay must arise, some force be expended […].”—Herbert Spencer

13. Omit needless words.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. […]

the question as to whether

14. Avoid a succession of loose sentences[.]

An unskilful writer will sometimes construct a whole paragraph of sentences of this kind, using as connectives and, but, so, and less frequently, who, which, when, where, and while […].

If the writer finds that he has written a series of sentences of the type described, he should recast enough of them to remove the monotony, replacing them by simple sentences, by sentences of two clauses joined by a semicolon, by periodic sentences of two clauses, by sentences, loose or periodic, of three clauses—whichever best represent the real relations of the thought.

15. Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form.

This principle, that of parallel construction, requires that expressions of similar content and function should be outwardly similar. The likeness of form enables the reader to recognize more readily the likeness of content and function.

[…] a mistaken belief that he should constantly vary the form of his expressions.

Formerly, science was taught by the textbook method, while now the laboratory method is employed.
Formerly, science was taught by the textbook method; now it is taught by the laboratory method.

Correlative expressions (both, and; not, but; not only, but also; either, or; first, second, third; and the like) should be followed by the same grammatical construction, that is, virtually, by the same part of speech.

16. Keep related words together. […]

[…] bring together the words, and groups of words, that are related in thought, and keep apart those which are not so related.

Cast iron, when treated in a Bessemer converter, is changed into steel.
By treatment in a Bessemer converter, cast iron is changed into steel.

Modifiers should come, if possible, next to the word they modify. If several expressions modify the same word, they should be so arranged that no wrong relation is suggested.

All the members were not present.
Not all the members were present.

He only found two mistakes.
He found only two mistakes.

17. In summaries, keep to one tense.

In summarizing the action of a drama, the writer should always use the present tense. In summarizing a poem, story, or novel, he should preferably use the present, though he may use the past if he prefers. If the summary is in the present tense, antecedent action should be expressed by the perfect; if in the past, by the past perfect.

But whichever tense be used in the summary, a past tense in indirect discourse or in indirect question remains unchanged.

The Friar confesses that it was he who married them.

[…] whichever tense the writer chooses, he should use throughout.

[…] the writer should avoid intercalating such expressions as “he said,” “he stated,” “the speaker added,” “the speaker then went on to say,” “the author also thinks,” or the like.

[…] aim to write an orderly discussion supported by evidence, not a summary with occasional comment. […] if the scope of his discussion includes a number of works, he will as a rule do better not to take them up singly in chronological order, but to aim from the beginning at establishing general conclusions.

18. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

The proper place in the sentence for the word, or group of words, which the writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end. […]

This steel is principally used for making razors, because of its hardness.
Because of its hardness, this steel is principally used in making razors.

To receive special emphasis, the subject of a sentence must take the position of the predicate.

Through the middle of the valley flowed a winding stream.

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.

III. A Few Matters of Form

Headings. Leave a blank line, or its equivalent in space, after the title or heading […].

Numerals. Do not spell out dates or other serial numbers.

Parentheses. A sentence containing an expression in parenthesis is punctuated, outside of the marks of parenthesis, exactly as if the expression in parenthesis were absent. […]

(When a wholly detached expression or sentence is parenthesized, the final stop comes before the last mark of parenthesis.)

Quotations. Formal quotations, cited as documentary evidence, are introduced by a colon and enclosed in quotation marks.

The provision of the Constitution is: “No tax or duty shall be laid on articles exported from any state.”

Quotations grammatically in apposition or the direct objects of verbs are preceded by a comma and enclosed in quotation marks.

I recall the maxim of La Rochefoucauld, “Gratitude is a lively sense of benefits to come.” […]

Quotations of an entire line, or more, of verse, are begun on a fresh line and centered, but need not be enclosed in quotation marks. […]

Quotations introduced by that are regarded as in indirect discourse and not enclosed in quotation marks.

Keats declares that beauty is truth, truth beauty.

References. In scholarly work requiring exact references, abbreviate titles that occur frequently, giving the full forms in an alphabetical list at the end. As a general practice, give the references in parenthesis or in footnotes, not in the body of the sentence. Omit the words act, scene, line, book, volume, page, except when referring by only one of them. […]

After the killing of Polonius, Hamlet is placed under guard (IV.ii. 14).

Syllabication. If there is room at the end of a line for one or more syllables of a word, but not for the whole word, divide the word […].

Titles. For the titles of literary works, scholarly usage prefers italics with capitalized initials. […] Omit initial A or The from titles when you place the possessive before them.

[…] A Tale of Two Cities; Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities.

IV. Words and Expressions Commonly Misused

Certainly. Used indiscriminately by some writers, much as others use very, to intensify any and every statement. A mannerism of this kind, bad in speech, is even worse in writing.

Compare. To compare to is to point out or imply resemblances, between objects regarded as essentially of different order; to compare with is mainly to point out differences, between objects regarded as essentially of the same order.

Different than. Not permissible. Substitute different from, other than, or unlike.

Due to. Incorrectly used for through, because of, or owing to, in adverbial phrases: “He lost the first game, due to carelessness.” In correct use related as predicate or as modifier to a particular noun: “This invention is due to Edison;” “losses due to preventable fires.”

Folk. A collective noun, equivalent to people. Use the singular form only.

Etc. […] At the end of a list introduced by such as, for example, or any similar expression, etc. is incorrect.

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

However. In the meaning nevertheless, not to come first in its sentence or clause. […]

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

Interesting. Avoid this word as a perfunctory means of introduction. Instead of announcing that what you are about to tell is interesting, make it so.

Kind of. Not to be used as a substitute for rather (before adjectives and verbs), or except in familiar style, for something like (before nouns). Restrict it to its literal sense: “Amber is a kind of fossil resin;” “I dislike that kind of notoriety.” The same holds true of sort of.

Less. Should not be misused for fewer. […]

Less refers to quantity, fewer to number.

Like. Not to be misused for as. Like governs nouns and pronouns; before phrases and clauses the equivalent word is as.

We spent the evening like in the old days.
We spent the evening as in the old days.

Lose out. Meant to be more emphatic than lose, but actually less so, because of its commonness. The same holds true of try out, win out, sign up, register up.

One hundred and one. Retain the and in this and similar expressions […].

One of the most. Avoid beginning essays or paragraphs with this formula […]. There is nothing wrong in this; it is simply threadbare and forcible-feeble.

People. The people is a political term, not to be confused with the public. From the people comes political support or opposition; from the public comes artistic appreciation or commercial patronage.

So. Avoid, in writing, the use of so as an intensifier: “so good;” “so warm;” “so delightful.”

Split infinitive. […] the construction is in disfavor and is avoided by nearly all careful writers.

To diligently inquire
To inquire diligently

Thanking You in Advance. This sounds as if the writer meant, “It will not be worth my while to write to you again.” In making your request, write, “Will you please,” or “I shall be obliged,” and if anything further seems necessary write a letter of acknowledgment later.

They. A common inaccuracy is the use of the plural pronoun when the antecedent is a distributive expression such as each, each one, everybody, every one, many a man, which, though implying more than one person, requires the pronoun to be in the singular. Similar to this, but with even less justification, is the use of the plural pronoun with the antecedent anybody, any one, somebody, some one, the intention being either to avoid the awkward “he or she,” or to avoid committing oneself to either. Some bashful speakers even say, “A friend of mine told me that they, etc.”

Use he with all the above words, unless the antecedent is or must be feminine.

Very. Use this word sparingly. Where emphasis is necessary, use words strong in themselves.

While. Avoid the indiscriminate use of this word for and, but, and although.

Would. A conditional statement in the first person requires should, not would.

I should not have succeeded without his help. […]

To express habitual or repeated action, the past tense, without would, is usually sufficient, and from its brevity, more emphatic.

Once a year he would visit the old mansion.
Once a year he visited the old mansion.

V. Spelling

The practical objection to unaccepted and over-simplified spellings is the disfavor with which they are received by the reader.

Read the whole book: The Elements of Style.

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About Me

Jens Oliver Meiert, on September 30, 2021.

I’m Jens (long: Jens Oliver Meiert), and I’m a frontend engineering leader and tech author/publisher. I’ve worked as a technical lead for companies like Google and as an engineering manager for companies like Miro, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly and Frontend Dogma.

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