The Elements of Style - William Strunk - ebook

The Elements of Style is a prescriptive American English writing style guide in numerous editions, originally composed by William Strunk Jr. in 1918. It comprises elementary rules of usage, elementary principles of composition, a few matters of form, a list of words and expressions commonly misused, and a list of words often misspelled.

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The Elements of Style

William Strunk

First digital edition 2017 by Anna Ruggieri


This book aims to give in brief space the principal requirementsof plain English style. It aims to lighten the task of instructorand student by concentrating attention (in ChaptersIIandIII) on afew essentials, the rules of usage and principles of compositionmost commonly violated. In accordance with this plan it lays downthree rules for the use of the comma, instead of a score or more,and one for the use of the semicolon, in the belief that these fourrules provide for all the internal punctuationthat is required bynineteen sentences out of twenty. Similarly, it givesinChapter IIIonly those principles of the paragraph and thesentence which are of the widest application. The book thus coversonly a small portion of the field of English style. The experienceof its writer has been that once past the essentials, studentsprofit most by individual instruction based on the problems oftheir own work, and that each instructor has his own body oftheory, which he may prefer to that offered by any textbook.

The numbers of the sections may be used as references incorrecting manuscript.

The writer's colleagues in the Department of English in CornellUniversity have greatly helped him in the preparation of hismanuscript. Mr. George McLane Wood has kindlyconsented to theinclusion underRule 10of some material from hisSuggestions toAuthors.

The following books are recommended for reference or furtherstudy: in connection with ChaptersIIandIV, F. Howard Collins,Authorand Printer(Henry Frowde); Chicago University Press,Manual ofStyle; T. L. De Vinne,Correct Composition(The CenturyCompany); Horace Hart,Rules for Compositors and Printers(OxfordUniversity Press); George McLane Wood,Extracts from the Style-Bookof the Government Printing Office(United States Geological Survey);in connection with ChaptersIIIandV,The King's English(OxfordUniversity Press); Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch,The Art ofWriting(Putnam), especially the chapter, Interlude on Jargon;George McLane Wood,Suggestions toAuthors(United States GeologicalSurvey); John Lesslie Hall,English Usage(Scott, Foresman and Co.);James P. Kelley,Workmanship in Words(Little, Brown and Co.). Inthese will be found full discussions of many points here brieflytreated and an abundant store of illustrations to supplement thosegiven in this book.

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


1.Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding 's.

Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,

Charles's friend

Burns's poems

the witch's malice

This is the usage of the United States Government PrintingOffice and of the Oxford University Press.

Exceptions are the possessive of ancient proper namesin-esand-is, the possessiveJesus', and such forms asfor conscience'sake,for righteousness' sake. But such forms asAchilles'heel,Moses' laws,Isis' templeare commonly replaced by

the heel of Achilles

the laws of Moses

the temple of Isis

The pronominal possessiveshers,its,theirs,yours, andoneselfhaveno 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

gold, silver, or copper

He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of itscontents.

This is also the usage ofthe Government Printing Office and ofthe Oxford University Press.

In the names of business firms the last comma is omitted,as,

Brown, Shipley & Co.

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 decidewhether a single word, such ashowever, or a brief phrase, is or isnot parenthetic. If the interruption to the flow of the sentence isbut slight, the writer may safely omit the commas. But whether theinterruption be slight or considerable, he must never insert onecomma and omit the other. Such punctuation as

Marjorie's husband, Colonel Nelson paid us a visityesterday,


My brother you will be pleased to hear, is now in perfecthealth,

is indefensible.

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

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

Always to be regarded as parenthetic and to be enclosed betweencommas (or, at the end of the sentence, between comma and period)are the following:

(1) the year, when forming part of a date, and the day of themonth, when following the day of the week:

February to July, 1916.

April 6, 1917.

Monday, November 11, 1918.

(2) the abbreviationsetc.andjr.

(3) non-restrictive relative clauses, that is, those which donot serve to identify or define the antecedent noun, and similarclauses introduced by conjunctions indicating time or place.

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

In this sentence the clause introduced bywhichdoes not serve totell which of several possible audiences is meant; what audience isin question is supposed to be already known. The clause adds,parenthetically, a statement supplementing that in the main clause.The sentence is virtually a combination of two statements whichmight have been made independently:

The audience had at first been indifferent. It became more andmore interested.

Compare the restrictive relative clause, not set off by commas,in the sentence,

The candidate who best meets these requirements will obtain theplace.

Here the clause introduced bywhodoes serve to tell which ofseveral possible candidates is meant; the sentence cannot be splitup into two independent statements.

The difference in punctuation in the two sentences following isbased on the same principle:

Nether Stowey, where Coleridge wroteThe Rime of theAncientMariner, is a few miles from Bridgewater.

The day will come when you will admit your mistake.

Nether Stowey is completely identified by its name; thestatement about Coleridge is therefore supplementary andparenthetic. Thedayspoken of is identified only by the dependentclause, which is therefore restrictive.

Similar in principle to the enclosing of parenthetic expressionsbetween commas is the setting off by commas of phrases or dependentclauses preceding or following the main clause of a sentence.

Partly by hard fighting, partly by diplomatic skill, theyenlarged their dominions to the east, and rose to royal rank withthe possession of Sicily, exchanged afterwards for Sardinia.

Other illustrations may be found in sentencesquoted underRules4,5,6,7,16, and18.

The writer should be careful not to set off independent clausesby commas: see underRule 5.

4.Place a comma before a conjunction introducing a co-ordinateclause.

The early records of the city have disappeared,and the story ofits first years can no longer be reconstructed.

The situation is perilous, but there is still one chance ofescape.

Sentences of this type, isolated from their context, may seem tobe in need of rewriting. As they make complete sense whenthe commais reached, the second clause has the appearance of anafterthought. Further,andis the least specific of connectives. Usedbetween independent clauses, it indicates only that a relationexists between them without defining that relation. In the exampleabove, the relation is that of cause and result. The two sentencesmight be rewritten:

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

Although the situation is perilous, there is still one chance ofescape.

Or the subordinate clauses might be replaced by phrases: