Year 31

1918: The Elements of Style

Author/Editor: William Strunk & E. B. White

Find it in Collins Library!

Strunk & White’s Elements of Style was written in 1918 for in-house use at Cornell, where E.B. White encountered it in composition class the following year. Years later, in 1957, White revised it for MacMillan, which created the now-iconic Strunk & White. Since 1957, many students have found themselves assigned the little book.

The little book was my introduction to the idea that there is such a thing as writing style. While I can’t claim to follow all the elements of style, I can claim to aspire to them. I’m always reminded of Strunk & White when I revise what I’ve written and am pained to omit needless words. In this paragraph, for example, I’ve only managed to dispose of four, but that’s four better than it might have been.

The Elements of Style has been criticized as excessively prescriptive and sometimes lacking in grammatical foundation. These are fair criticisms, but I think it has a lasting impact because, as Strunk noticed,

“the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in that sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation.”

When we know the rules, we can deploy them strategically.

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