Midway through the year in my twelfth grade A.P. English class, my teacher tossed a small, nondescript book with blue dog-ears on our desks and professed it to be one of the most foundational texts of contemporary English language usage. The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White. All I could recall of E.B. White was something about a swan and a trumpet—and maybe Stuart Little…?
We were skeptical, especially considering the fact that Strunk and White’s book was small but crammed with—ugh—rules of grammar. Though I laboriously and disinterestedly copied out Strunk and White’s iconic rules of usage and composition then, today in college the little book is back on my bookshelf. I pass it on to students in tutoring sessions and find myself gushing with the same words my teacher used four years ago: “Read it. Memorize it. Succeed.”
The rules of The Elements of Style (8 rules of usage, 10 of composition) may seem fairly straightforward, but they are absolutely spot on. Strunk and White identify the most common problems in writing and using the English language and attack them straightforwardly and concisely. These rules just happen to be what every English teacher you encounter in high school (and college) will expect you to know, for several reasons: writing clear, intelligent essays; performing well on standardized tests; and forming arguments in speech and other discourses. And guess what? These golden rules aren’t secret. They’re free for everyone!
[Continue to learn about Elements of Style]
Let’s go through some of the most important “principal requirements of plain English style” in Strunk and White’s book. (The rest you can read on your own!)
- Usage rule 1: Form the possessive singular of nouns with ‘s. That is, if you want to talk about the shoes which belong to Susan, you will add ‘s to ‘Susan:’ Susan’s shoes. This rule adheres regardless of what the final consonant of the singular noun is! So, you guessed it: Charles’s pencils, Burns’s poems, Jones’s monsters. The only exception to this rule is with ancient, biblical, or mythical names, such as Jesus, Moses, and Achilles. These only need an apostrophe to show possession: Jesus’, Moses’, Achilles’.
- Usage rule 5: Do not join independent clauses by a comma. This is just a fancy way of saying, “Thou shalt not be lazy and put a comma in between two sentences that can stand on their own.” I.e., what we call a “comma splice” (I went to dinner, it was good) should be resolved with a period or semicolon (I went to dinner; it was good).
- Usage rule 6: Do not break sentences in two. In other words, don’t put a period where there should actually be a comma! “She met him on the train. Coming home from Nebraska” should become “She met him on the train, coming home from Nebraska.”
- Composition rule 13: Omit needless words. In Strunk and White’s words, “vigorous writing is concise.” Some phrases that commonly gunk up a paper are the following: the fact that, the question as to whether, there is no doubt that, who is, which was, etc. Get rid of these! The clearer way to say something is the better way. (Shakespeare was right when he said Brevity is the soul of wit.)
- Composition rule 12: Put statements in positive form. Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, non-committal language. I.e., the weak, non-committal sentence ‘He was not very often on time’ becomes, with Strunk and White’s magic rule, ‘He usually came late.’
Strunk and White conclude their brief introduction to The Elements of Style with the following: “After [the student] has learned, by [the rules’] 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.”
But they also say: “It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric.” There you have it. You really do have to learn the rules first, before you break them.
About the author: Kathleen McGunagle is a senior in Princeton University’s English department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Certificate Program. Concentrating in British Renaissance Literature, she will be writing a thesis this spring on Shakespeare and early modern materialist psychology. Kathleen is an Academic Peer Adviser at Princeton, tutor through Princeton Tutoring, and avid performer. She has recently returned from a year of study at Worcester College, Oxford.