Study Guide

The Elements of Style

by William Strunk Jr., E. B. White

The Elements of Style Summary

Introduction

English professor William Strunk Jr. wrote The Elements of Style as a guide for his students at Cornell University and had it printed privately in 1918. In 1935, Strunk issued a revised edition, titled The Elements and Practice of Composition, with Edward A. Tenney as coauthor. Among Strunk’s students was E. B. White, who many years later wrote an article about Strunk for the New Yorker magazine. The article led Macmillan publishers to ask White to revise Strunk’s original book for general publication. (Strunk died in 1946.) This first published edition of The Elements of Style came out in 1959 and credited Strunk and White as coauthors. To supplement his other additions and revisions, White added a fifth chapter, ‘‘An Approach to Style.’’ White’s New Yorker article about Strunk was revised to serve as an introduction.

White made minor changes for a second edition published in 1972 and further additions and updates for the third edition, published in 1979. A fourth edition published in 1999 includes a new introduction written by White’s stepson, Roger Angell.

Since publication of the 1959 edition, The Elements of Style has been widely considered a necessary reference for both academic and professional writers. Generations of students, teachers, writers, and editors have known it simply as ‘‘Strunk and White.’’

The Elements of Style Summary

Chapter 1: Elementary Rules of Usage
This chapter sets forth eleven rules of English usage dealing with the formation of possessives; correct use of commas, colons, and dashes; nounverb agreement; pronoun cases; and participial phrases. Each rule is followed by a series of correct and incorrect examples with explanations. The chapter is not comprehensive (for example, it does not address all uses of commas); instead it addresses areas in which the authors felt errors were common at the time.

Chapter 2: Elementary Principles of Composition
Another set of eleven rules addresses structure in written work, moving from the overall structure of a piece (‘‘Choose a suitable design and hold to it’’) to sentence structure (‘‘Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end’’). Again, each rule is followed by examples and amplification. The authors use excerpts from accomplished writers including Jean Stafford and E. M. Forster as models of effective composition.

Chapter 3: A Few Matters of Form
This very brief chapter covers details of the actual presentation of written work—what it should look like on the page. Issues addressed range from margins and headings to where to place punctuation marks in relation to parentheses.

Chapter 4: Words and Expressions Commonly Misused
This long chapter, the final section of Strunk’s original manuscript, is a compendium of words and phrases that writers often misuse, again followed by explanations and examples. The...

(The entire section is 634 words.)