review by Gabriel
In the introduction to The Elements of Style, E B White provides a wonderful image of his former English tutor, William Strunk, standing before his class and dictating, “Rule Seventeen! Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!” It was an image that stayed with me while I read this writing guide, and every time I came across an uncompromising order on the use of commas, or a withering criticism of those who trespass against the rules of language, I imagined a curmudgeonly old English professor waggling his finger at me. The important thing to note, however, is that he’s a curmudgeonly old English professor who knows what he’s talking about.
The Elements of Style is famously short, affectionately referred to as “the little book”. This is not because it has little to say, but because it says it so efficiently. It’s also well structured, with each piece of advice numbered and referenced in the index and glossary, making its contents readily accessible. As such, the book’s size and convenience invite writers to carry it around in their pockets, for reference.
Strunk and White’s overarching message of that strong writing is concise, clear, and grammatically accurate. Many readers and writers will baulk at the idea of imposing rules on composition, and the authors acknowledge that good writing does not rely on a rigid adherence to grammar and correct punctuation. Yet again and again, they demonstrate the merits of their approach. With just a few lines of guidance and some choice examples, it becomes clear why it is better, for instance, to prefer active sentences, or express coordinate ideas in similar form.
Yes, the book is filled with English grammar jargon like “nominative pronoun” and “relative clause”, as well as rules on the correct placement of apostrophes and the right way to indicate quotes. The advice sometimes seems like pedantry, and occasionally even personal preference. But understanding these conventions will help make writing appear more professional and avoid ambiguity. Thankfully, the dryness of the subject matter is alleviated by humorous examples, not to mention the belligerence of the authors.
Many great works of writing would seem to disagree with The Elements of Style, but all writers would benefit from being aware of its principles. I recommend it, for aspiring writers like myself, and even more experienced people who may have picked up some bad habits.
Of course, I’ve probably broken a million of its rules in this review, and will have to deal with the spectre of imaginary Professor Shrunk barking at me about using strings of loose sentences.