Elements of Style



English professor William Strunk, Jr. self-published the first Elements of Style



Harcourt republished Strunk’s style guide



Strunk worked with Edward E. Tenney and wrote The Elements and Practice of Composition



E.B. White was commissioned by Macmillian and Company to revise Strunk’s Elements of Style



Linguistics Professor Geoffrey Pullum at Edinburgh University criticized the book, referring to it as “the book that ate America’s brain”



Illustrator Maira Kalman illustrated the Strunk and White edition and published it as The Elements of Style Illustrated



Time named Elements of Style as one of the best and most influential English books since 1923

Elements that Never go out of Style


Who Decided The Elements of Style?

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. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.

— ”Elementary Principles of Composition”, The Elements of Style


As an English professor at Cornell University, William Strunk (1869-1946) wrote, and self-published for use at Cornell, Elements of Style in 1918. It was a basic and short text consisting of elementary rules of usage, composition, form, 49 commonly misused words, and 57 words that were often misspelled. Harcourt re-published the book in 1920. Strunk collaborated with Edward A. Tenney in 1935 and released The Elements and Practice of Composition.


Usage and Changes

In 1959, E.B. White (1899-1985), a former student of Strunk’s who had forgotten about the self-published version, found it and was commissioned by Macmillian and Company to revise it. It became known as “Strunk & White.” The first edition sold two million copies, and since then, more than 10 million copies of various editions have been sold.


Contents and Concepts

Strunk felt strongly about word usage; his recommendation was “Make every word tell.” Thus, “Omit needless words”, “Use active voice”, and “Use parallel construction on parallel concepts” were the touchstones of his book.

By the time, E.B. White worked on his 1959 revision, contents and concepts had expanded to include an expanded list of word-usage errors, punctuation and grammar rules, basics principles of writing, and matters of form and style. He expressed to writers that they “have a proper mind-set, write to please themselves, and that they aim for ‘one moment of felicity’”*.

In 2011, Time named the book one of the “100 best and influential books written in English since 1923.”


Criticism of Style(s) by an Original English Speaker

In 2002, Geoffrey Pullum, a professor of linguistics at Edinburgh University, and co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), criticized Elements of Style with, “Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write however or than me or was or which, but can’t tell you why.


Any Book Can Become a Musical

In 2001, Maira Kalman, an illustrator, found a copy of Strunk and White at a yard sale. She said, “each sentence was so full of incredible visual reference. I said to myself, how could anyone not have illustrated this before?” She chose to illustrate examples, such as “His first thought on getting out of bed – if he had any thought at all – was to get back in again.” She said she found herself making up tunes with the book’s words and considered an opera or ballet format for it. She took this idea to composer and friend, Nico Muhly, who put it to music. The New York Times discussion of the piece stated, “His [Muhly] Strunk and White songs are eloquently scored for soprano, tenor, viola, banjo and percussion. They also include parts for Ms. Kalman’s friends and family, who will make ‘little gentle noises’ through amplified kitchen utensils (vintage eggbeaters and meat grinders) and a set of dice shaken in a bowl.” The concert was first performed in 2005 at The New York Public Library.


Did You Know?

  • American poet, Dorothy Parker had two pieces of advice for young writers, “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them, is to present them with copies of, The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
  • In the fourth edition (2000), writers are advised to “avoid an unintentional emphasis on the masculine.”
  • E.B. White wrote the children’s favorites, Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little.


* A quote thought to be from Robert Lewis Stevenson.



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