The Elements of Style is a classic in English writing, but is it worthy of today’s classroom?
William Strunk Jr.’s brief text on writing rules was originally a self-published primer back in 1918. Strunk used it as a supplementary text in his teaching at Cornell University. A few years after self-publishing, Strunk sold the rights to a major publisher, Harcourt, Brace, & Howe, which began printing his text in 1920. The seconnd edition of the book was not released until 1957. In 37 years, the first edition — little more than a booklet — had grown to become a popular fixture in writing classrooms across the English-speaking world. The Elements of Style is a classic in terms of age, usefulness, and reception, well-received among English teachers for its quality and among students for its brevity. The circulation and use of this slim, little style guide testify to its past standing in English education, even if that popularity tells us little about whether it suits modern students. Now in the public domain, free and legal first editions of Elements of Style can be found online, as well as through free ebook download. For home-educators and self-styled writers, the combination of its glowing reputation and ease of access makes Elements a viable no-cost textbook option, and an online treasure at that. Alongside McGuffey's Readers or Webster’s Dictionary, Elements is one of the great books on English writing.
At the text’s core is the teaching personality of former Cornell professor William Strunk, reaching across time to counsel and tutor English writers everywhere. It is devoid of condescension and arrogance. Instead, Strunk speaks in a humble and approachable manner, using brief, crisp, and clear instructions. He does not mince words, nor does he waste them. Strunk also appreciates that linguistic rules and spelling are really just conventions, and conventions can change over time (p. 1, 2, 54). He further adds that “the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric,” but “when they do so… the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit.” (2) In other words, these rules are not set in stone. They can be broken, provided it is for a good cause. In this way, Strunk wisely recognizes that language may change like a flowing river, yet the river remains. In this way, Elements of Style is timeless.The book is dated only in the respect that English has evolved over the years, leaving some of Strunk’s counsel antiquated. For example, he says:
- Hyphenate “to-day, to-night, and to-morrow” (57)
- Use “shall” for future tense first-person instead of “will” (49)
- Use “should” for the conditional form of “shall” as in “he predicted that before long we should have a great surprise” (53)
- Avoid the terms “near by” and “all right” (39)
- He refers to wave sports as “surf-riding” instead of “surfing” (21)
He also uses antiquated expressions such as, “[Y]ou should be able to stop and go on, and follow this way or that, as the freak takes you.” (15) In context, he seems to be using the word “freak” to suggest spontaneity. But to modern ears, it sounds like a guided tour from Hannibal Lecter.
To be sure, these antiquated elements are corrected in later editions from 1957, 1979, and 1999. Strunk died in 1946, so these later revisions merge Strunk’s voice with the editing updates of his former student, E.B. White. The book, today, is colloquially called Strunk & White. The text is now in its fourth edition. An alleged fifth edition, The Elements of Style 2017 (by Richard De A’Morelli) is actually a cleverly-titled independent project only “inspired by and loosely based” on Strunk & White. Beware of similarly titled but apocryphal books on the market, which aim to exploit the name recognition affiliated with the classic title. They may claim to be new, improved, or updated editions, but in reality, the most recent edition of Elements of Style is still the fourth edition dating back to 1999.
For students and teachers, this publication history presents a problem. In 1999, online schooling was a virtual nonentity. Style guides had not yet settled on practical rules or standards for online sources, blogs, online journal and news articles, online magazines, social media posts from experts, and pretty much anything online. The general consensus in 1999 was don’t trust anything you read on the internet, so don’t even bother including any of it in your research papers. I graduated high school around that time and remember teachers in college pointing me to citation methods for CD-ROMs, because there weren’t yet any citation rules for citing online journal articles.
The permeation of the internet is no small matter. Style guides and writing manuals, to survive, must account for the paradigmatic shift into internet-era learning. Otherwise, they stand on the brink of extinction, artifacts fossilized by the inexorable shift to online education. Students and teachers would be wise to adopt up-to-date writing guides such as Kate Turabian’s A Manual for Writers, 8th ed. or the longer version, the Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. And of course, there are up-to-date formatting guides for APA and MLA styles too.
The Elements of Style, however, is about writing generally, and not about online citations, or online writing specifically. Most of its style rules have endured over the last century. Strunk’s guidelines are mostly English norms designed to stabilize conventional English writing, regardless of changes on the linguistic fringe. If language is a river of change, Strunk’s Elements of Style is less like the shape of water and more like oxygen and hydrogen, in that they are elements. Of the sixty-one pages in the book, perhaps three pages are truly outdated. His elementary rules of usage — Section II — is a fine rudimentary guide for comma usage, sentence breaks, and so on (3–11). Section III delves into rules for composition (12–34). Strunk also offers solid recommendations to help students understand the purpose of a paragraph and the difference between effective and ineffective sentences. All of these elements are reliable rules that apply as well today. Section IV offers spot treatments for common formatting errors (35–38). Section V addresses commonly misused words and phrases and is probably the most dated section, perhaps because it ties most closely to colloquially spoken English (39–53). Most of this reviewer’s objections deal with Section V. Even still, only a couple of these rules fail the test of time. The last sections including a spelling list (VI, 54–57) and some practical writing exercises (VII, 58–61)
Ultimately, Strunk’s Elements of Style stands the test of time because its purpose exceeds merely formatting school papers. What makes Strunk’s vision timeless is the ever-relevant imperative to write well, both within and outside the limitations of our grammar rules. Every writing student understands this dilemma. To what extent should students “follow the rules” as opposed to writing for smooth, clear, and beautiful communication? While Chicago, APA, and MLA manuals can dictate formal standards for research writing and online-sourcing, Strunk’s Elements of Style is more fundamental than that. It speaks in classic fashion, oblivious to recent trends that may only be passing linguistic fads. This book is not, however, a stand-alone writing guide. Brevity makes it easy to digest, but it also means Strunk isn’t comprehensive. Students need at least two other reference texts to be reasonably prepared for grades eight through twelve and college level writing. We recommend the following:
- Kate L. Turabian, A Manual of Style of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 8th ed. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 2013), 464 pages.
- Wayne C. Booth, et al. The Craft of Research, 4th ed. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 2016), 336 pages.
Both of these two books work within the “Chicago style” of writing, so students should add APA and MLA style guides if their teachers require it. Chicago, APA, and MLA all use different citation methods, so they are not interchangeable. Nevertheless, Turabian’s book is also a marvelous reference work when it comes to questions about how to use a semicolon, how to display foreign words, or how to format charts. Turabian’s manual is typically the “go-to” source for settling debates about the English Language. The other text, The Craft of Research empowers students by arming them with the practical skills for research writing. Many students, myself included, can advance pretty far in the higher education sphere without ever really learning how to properly conduct research. The Craft of Research, fills that gap, elaborating on the task, methods, and practice of research.
Strunk’s Elements of Style is an important companion to Turabian and Booth, even though it is dwarfed by comparison. But the size difference makes sense when we realize that massive dinosaurs didn’t survive through the eons with the adaptability of smaller and more agile species. Over one hundred years, countless other style guides and manuals went extinct, yet Strunk’s Elements survives.
So what’s the verdict? Is this book fit for modern classes? Emphatically, yes. Despite climactic change and seismic shifts, Elements remains important and pertinent. Notwithstanding a couple old-fashioned trappings, The Elements of Style retains the simplicity, efficiency, and vibrancy of a viable modern textbook.