Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 634
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 list begins with the words ‘‘aggravate’’ and ‘‘irritate,’’ followed by an explanation that the two are not synonyms; ‘‘irritate’’ means ‘‘to annoy,’’ and ‘‘aggravate’’ means ‘‘to add to an already annoying situation.’’ The authors similarly clarify the meanings of ‘‘alternate’’ and ‘‘alternative,’’ ‘‘among’’ and ‘‘between,’’ and many other pairs.
Strunk and White consider a word misused if it has the wrong meaning for its use in the sentence or if it adds no meaning. For example, they point out that the word ‘‘character’’ is misused in the phrase ‘‘acts of a hostile character,’’ which they recommend shortening to ‘‘hostile acts.’’
Chapter 5: An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders)
This chapter, White’s addition to the original manuscript, begins by defining what White means by ‘‘style’’: ‘‘Style is the sense of what is distinguished and distinguishing.’’ White continues:
Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of [F. Scott] Fitzgerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. Every writer, by the way he uses the language, reveals something of his spirit, his habits, his capacities, his bias.
White uses examples from Thomas Paine (the famed ‘‘These are the times that try men’s souls’’) and Thomas Wolfe to demonstrate that while meaning can be conveyed equally well by any number of constructions (‘‘Times like these try men’s souls’’), one particular way of expressing an idea is often more pleasing, powerful, and memorable than any of the alternatives. The ability to express an idea in a powerful way is a hallmark of style, White declares. He adds that some writers’ styles are so distinctive that readers come to recognize their ‘‘voices’’ on paper as easily as they would learn to recognize their speaking voices. Quotations from William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, and Walt Whitman illustrate this point.
Having shown what style is, White offers twenty- one suggestions designed to help novice writers develop their own styles. Some of these tips address technical matters, such as avoiding weak qualifiers (‘‘rather,’’ ‘‘very,’’ etc.) and using standard spelling (‘‘through,’’ not ‘‘thru,’’ for example). Other tips deal with more subjective issues: ‘‘Do not explain too much’’; ‘‘Place yourself in the background.’’ By the latter, White means that good writing ‘‘draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author.’’