TheElements of StylebyWilliam Strunk

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TheElements of StylebyWilliam Strunk

TheElements of StylebyWilliam Strunk, Jr.

    Professor of English

    Cornell University

    RevisedbyJohn Woldemar Cowan

    Copyright ? 2006, 2007, 2008

    by John Cowan

    Based on the 1918 public domain version

    Published on the Internet at

    This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

    1st edition


    I. Introductory

    Reviser's introduction.

    Author's introduction.

    II. Elementary Rules of Usage

    1. Form the possessive of singular nouns with 's.

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

    3. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.

    4. Place a comma before and or but introducing an independent clause. 5. Do not join independent clauses by a comma.

    6. Do not break sentences in two.

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

    8. Hyphenate words in accordance with dictionaries and spelling-checkers.

    III. Elementary Principles of Composition

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

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

    11. Use the active voice.

    12. Put statements in positive form.

    13. Omit needless words.

    14. Avoid a succession of loose sentences.

    15. Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form.

    16. Keep related words together.

    17. In summaries, keep to one tense.

    18. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end. IV. A Few Matters of Form








    V. Words and Expressions Commonly Misused

    Advice, advise.All right.Allusion.And which, and who. As good or better than.As to whether.Bid.But.Case.Character.Compare.Continual, continuous.Effect, affect.Etc.Fact.Factor,feature.Formerly,formally. He, he or she, they.He is a man who.Kind of.

    Lay.Less.Line, along these lines.Literal, literally.Most.Nature.Of.One hundred and one.One of the most.People.Phase.Possess.Respective, respectively.So.Sort of.State.System.Very.



I. Introductory

    Reviser's introduction (2006)

    This book, The Elements of Style Revised, is based on William Strunk's original "little book" of 1918, The Elements of Style. It is therefore a younger brother to the well-known "Strunk and White." I have used none of the material added by E. B. White to the 1958 or later editions of The Elements of Style in writing this book. This book likewise contains neither illustrations nor songs.

    My revisions to the original are founded on the principle that rules of usage and style cannot be drawn out of thin air, nor constructed a priori according to "logic"; they must depend on the actual practice of those who are generally acknowledged to be good writers. For a larger work founded on the same principles and giving much more detailed and up-to-date advice on usage, the reader is urged to consult the current edition of Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, as I have done with both pleasure and profit while preparing this revision. I have attempted to remain within the scope of the original. This book, therefore, is intended as a compendium of helpful advice to novice writers in freshman composition classes, not a code of general laws of writing for all works by all writers in all circumstances. Violations of the rules can be found within the book itself this is neither inconsistent nor

    hypocritical, as The Elements of Style Revised is not a paper written for a composition class.

    In updating Strunk's work from the 19th century to the early 21st century, I have retained as much of Strunk's spirit and characteristic style as I could. I have removed the obsolete, the erroneous, and the merely idiosyncratic (Strunk's arbitrary dislike of "student body", for example) both from Strunk's own usage and from the rules laid down in his book. Like White, I have also added a few points to Chapters IV and V that seemed to me important enough to justify their presence, as well as removing Strunk's Chapter VI on spelling. I have not hesitated to replace Strunk's opinions with contrary ones, though I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of those I expected to require changing (strictures against split infinitives and final prepositions, as well as the preposterous which/that rule) did not appear in the 1918 edition at all. My thanks to all who helped me with this edition, especially those who published critiques of the original as well as competitors to it. All errors of course remain my responsibility, and I will be happy to receive corrections at I obtained the base HTML document from which my work began at Douglas Crockford's site. My special thanks to Geoffrey Pullum of the University of California, Santa Cruz for (quite unintentionally) inspiring me to perform this work of revision. Author's introduction (1918)

    This book is intended for use in English courses in which the practice of composition is combined with the study of literature. It aims to give in brief space the principal requirements of plain English style. It aims to lighten the task of instructor and student by concentrating attention (in Chapters II and III) on a few essentials, the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated. The numbers of the sections may be used as references in correcting manuscript.

    The book covers only a small portion of the field of English style, but the experience of its writer has been that once past the essentials, students profit most by individual instruction based on the problems of their own work, and that each instructor has his own body of theory, which he prefers to that offered by any textbook.

    The writer's colleagues in the Department of English in Cornell University have greatly helped him in the preparation of his manuscript. Mr. George McLane Wood has kindly consented to the inclusion under Rule 11 of some material from his Suggestions to Authors.

    The following books are recommended for reference or further study: in connection with Chapters II and IV, F. Howard Collins, Author and Printer (Henry Frowde); Chicago University Press, Manual of Style; T. L. De Vinne Correct Composition (The Century Company); Horace Hart, Rules for Compositors and Printers (Oxford University Press); George McLane Wood, Extracts from the Style-Book of the Government Printing Office (United States Geological Survey); in connection with Chapters III and V, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, The Art of Writing (Putnams), especially the chapter, Interlude on Jargon; George McLane Wood, Suggestions to Authors (United States Geological Survey); John Leslie Hall, English Usage (Scott, Foresman and Co.); James P. Kelly, Workmanship in Words (Little, Brown and Co.).

    It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.

    II. Elementary Rules of Usage

    1. Form the possessive of singular nouns with 's.

    Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,

    Charles's friend

    Burns's poems

    the witch's malice

    Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names in -es and -is, and the possessive Jesus'. But such forms as Achilles' heel, Moses' laws, Isis' temple are commonly replaced by

    the heel of Achilles (the Achilles heel, in figurative use) the laws of Moses

    the temple of Isis

    The possessive pronouns hers, its, theirs, yours, and oneself have no apostrophe.

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

    Thus write,

    red, white, and blue

    honest, energetic, but headstrong

    He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents. In the names of business firms, the usage of the firm should be followed. The abbreviation etc., even if only a single term comes before it, is always preceded by a comma.

    Use a semicolon in place of a comma if any of the terms itself contains a comma.

    Among the injured were Emory P. Gray, of Oyster Bay, New York; Norman Bean of Chicago; and Ignatius Donnelly, the Sage of Nininger. 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 sometimes 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 very slight, the writer may safely omit the commas. But whether the interruption is slight or considerable, never omit one comma and leave the other. Such punctuation as

    Marjorie's husband, Colonel Nelson paid us a visit yesterday,or My brother you will be pleased to hear, is now in perfect health,is indefensible.

    Non-restrictive relative clauses are, in accordance with this rule, set off

by commas.

    The audience, which had at first been indifferent, became more and more interested.

    Similar clauses introduced by where and when are similarly punctuated. In 1769, when Napoleon was born, Corsica had only recently been acquired by France.

    Nether Stowey, where Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, is a few miles from Bridgwater.

    In these sentences the clauses introduced by which, when, and where are non-restrictive; they do not limit the application of the words on which they depend, but add, parenthetically, statements supplementing those in the principal clauses. Each sentence is a combination of two statements which might have been made independently.

    The audience was at first indifferent. Later it became more and more interested.

    Napoleon was born in 1769. At that time Corsica had only recently been acquired by France.

    Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at Nether Stowey. Nether Stowey is only a few miles from Bridgewater.

    Restrictive relative clauses are not set off by commas.

    The candidate who best meets these requirements will obtain the place. In this sentence the relative clause restricts the application of the word candidate to a single person. Unlike those above, the sentence cannot be split into two independent statements.

    The abbreviations etc. and Jr. are always preceded by a comma and, except at the end of a sentence, followed by one.

    Similar in principle to the enclosing of parenthetic expressions between commas is the setting off by commas of phrases or dependent clauses preceding or following the main clause of a sentence. The sentences quoted in this section and under Rules 4, 5, 6, 7, 16, and 18 should afford sufficient guidance.

    4. Place a comma before and or but introducing an independent clause. The early records of the city have disappeared, and the story of its first years can no longer be reconstructed.

    The situation is perilous, but there is still one chance of escape. Sentences of this type, isolated from their context, may seem to be in need of rewriting. As they make complete sense when the comma is reached, the second clause has the appearance of an after-thought. Furthermore, and is the least specific of connectives. Used between independent clauses, it indicates only that a relation exists between them without defining that relation. In the example above, the relation is that of cause and result. The two sentences might be rewritten:

    As the early records of the city have disappeared, the story of its first years can no longer be reconstructed.

    Although the situation is perilous, there is still one chance of escape. Or the subordinate clauses might be replaced by phrases:

    Because of the disappearance of the early records of the city, the story of its first years can no longer be reconstructed.

    In this perilous situation, there is still one chance of escape. But a writer may err by making his sentences too uniformly compact and periodic, and an occasional loose sentence prevents the style from becoming too formal and gives the reader a certain relief. Consequently, loose sentences of the type first quoted are common in easy, unstudied writing. But a writer should be careful not to construct too many sentences after this pattern (see Rule 14).

    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: But that was short of the mark, for twenty guests were invited.

He hated it and loved it, as he hated and loved himself.

    If a dependent clause, or an introductory phrase set off by a comma, precedes the second independent clause, no comma is needed after the conjunction.

    The situation is perilous, but if we are prepared to act promptly, there is still one chance of escape.

    For two-part sentences connected by an adverb, see the next section. 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 sentence, the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon.

    Stevenson's romances are entertaining; they are full of exciting adventures.

    It is nearly half past five; we cannot reach town before dark. It is of course equally correct to write the above as two sentences each, replacing the semicolons by periods.

    Stevenson's romances are entertaining. They are full of exciting adventures.

    It is nearly half past five. We cannot reach town before dark. If a conjunction is inserted, the proper mark is a comma (Rule 4). Stevenson's romances are entertaining, for they are full of exciting adventures.

    It is nearly half past five, and we cannot reach town before dark. 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:

    At that moment they heard a door slam; then feet came running along the passage.

    There's five to one; besides, they all are fresh.

    When the second clause begins with so, use a semicolon or a comma: I had never been in the place before, so I had difficulty in finding my way about.

    An alternative that is usually serviceable, and always requires a comma, is to omit the word so and begin the first clause with as: As I had never been in the place before, I had difficulty in finding my way about.

    If the clauses are very short, and are alike in form, a comma is usually permissible:

    Man proposes, God disposes.

    The gate swung apart, the bridge fell, the portcullis was drawn up. Use a colon if the second clause illustrates or explains the first: The fireworks were by Gandalf: they were not only brought by him, but designed and made by him.

    6. Do not break sentences in two.

    In other words, do not use periods instead of commas.

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

    She was an interesting talker. A woman who had traveled all over the world, and lived in half a dozen countries.

    In both these examples, the first period should be replaced by a comma, and the following word begun with a small letter.

    It is permissible to make an emphatic word or expression serve the purpose of a sentence and to punctuate it accordingly:

    Again and again he called out. No reply.

    The writer must, however, be certain that the emphasis is warranted, and does not appear to be a mere blunder in punctuation.

    Note: Rules 3, 4, 5, and 6 cover the most important principles in the punctuation of ordinary sentences; they should be so thoroughly mastered that their application becomes second nature.

    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.

    The word walking refers to the subject of the sentence, not to the woman. If the writer wishes to make it refer to the woman, he must recast the sentence:

    He saw a woman, accompanied by two children, walking slowly down the road.

    Participial phrases preceded by a conjunction or by a preposition, nouns in apposition, adjectives, and adjective phrases come under the same rule if they begin the sentence.

    On arriving in Chicago, his friends met him at the station. When he arrived (or, On his arrival) in Chicago, his friends met him at the station. A soldier of proved valor, they entrusted him with the defense of the city.

     A soldier of proved valor, he was entrusted with the defense of the city.

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