The Elements of Style (William Strunk & E.B. White) : Legal Writing Book Review Series

The Elements of Style (1918) is written by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White. This is a prescriptive American English writing style guide comprising

  • eight “elementary rules of usage”
  • ten “elementary principles of composition”,
  • “a few matters of form”,
  • a list of 49 “words and expressions commonly misused”, and
  • a list of 57 “words often misspelled”.

In 2011, Time magazine listed The Elements of Style as one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923.

n The Elements of Style (1918), William Strunk concentrated on specific questions of usage—and the cultivation of good writing—with the recommendation “Make every word tell”; hence, the 17th principle of composition is the simple instruction: “Omit needless words.”

The 1959 edition features White’s expansions of those sections, the “Introduction” essay, and the concluding chapter, “An Approach to Style”, a broader, prescriptive guide to writing in English.

The third edition of The Elements of Style (1979) features 54 points:

  • a list of common word-usage errors;
  • 11 rules of punctuation and grammar;
  • 11 principles of writing;
  • 11 matters of form, and
  • 21 reminders for a better style, in Chapter V.

The final reminder, the 21st, “Prefer the standard to the offbeat”, is thematically integral to the subject of The Elements of Style, yet does stand as a discrete essay about writing lucid prose.

To write well, White advises writers to have the proper mind-set, that they write to please themselves, and that they aim for “one moment of felicity“, a phrase by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94); thus the professor’s 1918 recommendation:

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 every word tell.
—Elementary Principles of Composition, The Elements of Style

The fourth edition of The Elements of Style (2000), published fifty-four years after the death of William Strunk Jr., omits his stylistic advice about masculine pronouns: “unless the antecedent is or must be feminine”; and, in its place, editor E.B. White reports: “Currently, however, many writers find the use of the generic he or his to rename indefinite antecedents limiting or offensive.”

In Chapter IV: Misused Words and Expressions, the re-titled entry, “They. He or She” further advises avoiding an “unintentional emphasis on the masculine”.