The Elements of Style is an American English writing style guide in numerous editions. The original was written by William Strunk Jr. in 1918, and published by Harcourt in 1920, 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".
Every effort has been made to replicate this text as faithfully as possible, including inconsistencies in spelling and hyphenation.
Some corrections of spelling and punctuation have been made. They are marked like this in the text. The original text appears when hovering the cursor over the marked text. A list of amendments is at the end of the text.
BYWILLIAM STRUNK, Jr.
PROFESSOR OF ENGLISHINCORNELL UNIVERSITY
NEW YORKHARCOURT, BRACE AND COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1918, 1919, BYWILLIAM STRUNK, JR.
COPYRIGHT, 1920, BYHARCOURT, BRACE AND HOWE, INC.
THE MAPLE PRESS YORK PA
This book aims to give in brief space the principal requirements of plain English style. It aims to lighten the task of instructor and student by concentrating attention (in Chapters II and III) on a few essentials, the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated. In accordance with this plan it lays down three rules for the use of the comma, instead of a score or more, and one for the use of the semicolon, in the belief that these four rules provide for all the internal punctuation that is required by nineteen sentences out of twenty. Similarly, it gives in Chapter III only those principles of the paragraph and the sentence which are of the widest application. The book thus covers only a small portion of the field of English style. The experience of its writer has been that once past the essentials, students profit most by individual instruction based on the problems of their own work, and that each instructor has his own body of theory, which he may prefer to that offered by any textbook.
The numbers of the sections may be used as references in correcting manuscript.
The writer's colleagues in the Department of English in Cornell University have greatly helped him in the preparation of hismanuscript. Mr. George McLane Wood has kindly consented to the inclusion under Rule 10 of some material from his Suggestions to Authors.
The following books are recommended for reference or further study: in connection with Chapters II and IV, F. Howard Collins, Author and Printer (Henry Frowde); Chicago University Press, Manual of Style; T. L. De Vinne, Correct Composition (The Century Company); Horace Hart, Rules for Compositors and Printers (Oxford University Press); George McLane Wood, Extracts from the Style-Book of the Government Printing Office (United States Geological Survey); in connection with Chapters III and V, The King's English (Oxford University Press); Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, The Art of Writing (Putnam), especially the chapter, Interlude on Jargon; George McLane Wood, Suggestions to Authors (United States Geological Survey); John Lesslie Hall, English Usage (Scott, Foresman and Co.); James P. Kelley, Workmanship in Words (Little, Brown and Co.). In these will be found full discussions of many points here briefly treated and an abundant store of illustrations to supplement those given in this book.
It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.
Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,
the witch's malice
This is the usage of the United States Government Printing Office and of the Oxford University Press.
Exceptions are the possessive of ancient proper names in -es and -is, the possessive Jesus', and such forms as for conscience' sake, for righteousness' sake. But such forms as Achilles' heel, Moses' laws, Isis' temple are commonly replaced by
the heel of Achilles
the laws of Moses
the temple of Isis
The pronominal possessives hers, its, theirs, yours, and oneself have no apostrophe.
red, white, and blue
gold, silver, or copper
He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents.
This is also the usage of the Government Printing Office and of the Oxford University Press.
In the names of business firms the last comma is omitted, as,
Brown, Shipley & Co.
The best way to see a country, unless you are pressed for time, is to travel on foot.
This rule is difficult to apply; it is frequently hard to decide whether a single word, such as however, or a brief phrase, is or is not parenthetic. If the interruption to the flow of the sentence is but slight, the writer may safely omit the commas. But whether the interruption be slight or considerable, he must never insert one comma and omit the other. Such punctuation as
Marjorie's husband, Colonel Nelson paid us a visit yesterday,
My brother you will be pleased to hear, is now in perfect health,
If a parenthetic expression is preceded by a conjunction, place the first comma before the conjunction, not after it.
He saw us coming, and unaware that we had learned of his treachery, greeted us with a smile.
Always to be regarded as parenthetic and to be enclosed between commas (or, at the end of the sentence, between comma and period) are the following:
(1) the year, when forming part of a date, and the day of the month, when following the day of the week:
February to July, 1916.
April 6, 1917.
Monday, November 11, 1918.
(2) the abbreviations etc. and jr.
(3) non-restrictive relative clauses, that is, those which do not serve to identify or define the antecedent noun, and similar clauses introduced by conjunctions indicating time or place.
The audience, which had at first been indifferent, became more and more interested.
In this sentence the clause introduced by which does not serve to tell which of several possible audiences is meant; what audience is in question is supposed to be already known. The clause adds, parenthetically, a statement supplementing that in the main clause. The sentence is virtually a combination of two statements which might have been made independently:
The audience had at first been indifferent. It became more and more interested.
Compare the restrictive relative clause, not set off by commas, in the sentence,
The candidate who best meets these requirements will obtain the place.
Here the clause introduced by who does serve to tell which of several possible candidates is meant; the sentence cannot be split up into two independent statements.
The difference in punctuation in the two sentences following is based on the same principle:
Nether Stowey, where Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, is a few miles from Bridgewater.
The day will come when you will admit your mistake.
Nether Stowey is completely identified by its name; the statement about Coleridge is therefore supplementary and parenthetic. The day spoken of is identified only by the dependent clause, which is therefore restrictive.
Similar in principle to the enclosing of parenthetic expressions between commas is the setting off by commas of phrases or dependent clauses preceding or following the main clause of a sentence.
Partly by hard fighting, partly by diplomatic skill, they enlarged their dominions to the east, and rose to royal rank with the possession of Sicily, exchanged afterwards for Sardinia.
Other illustrations may be found in sentences quoted under Rules 4, 5, 6, 7, 16, and 18.
The writer should be careful not to set off independent clauses by commas: see under Rule 5.
The early records of the city have disappeared, and the story of its first years can no longer be reconstructed.
The situation is perilous, but there is still one chance of escape.
Sentences of this type, isolated from their context, may seem to be in need of rewriting. As they make complete sense when the comma is reached, the second clause has the appearance of an afterthought. Further, and is the least specific of connectives. Used between independent clauses, it indicates only that a relation exists between them without defining that relation. In the example above, the relation is that of cause and result. The two sentences might be rewritten:
As the early records of the city have disappeared, the story of its first years can no longer be reconstructed.
Although the situation is perilous, there is still one chance of escape.
Or the subordinate clauses might be replaced by phrases:
Owing to the disappearance of the early records of the city, the story of its first years can no longer be reconstructed.
In this perilous situation, there is still one chance of escape.
But a writer may err by making his sentences too uniformly compact and periodic, and an occasional loose sentence prevents the style from becoming too formal and gives the reader a certain relief. Consequently, loose sentences of the type first quoted are common in easy, unstudied writing. But a writer should be careful not to construct too many of his sentences after this pattern (see Rule 14).
Two-part sentences of which the second member is introduced by as (in the sense of because), for, or, nor, and while (in the sense of and at the same time) likewise require a comma before the conjunction.
If the second member is introduced by an adverb, a semicolon, not a comma, is required (see Rule 5). The connectives so and yet may be used either as adverbs or as conjunctions, accordingly as the second clause is felt to be co-ordinate or subordinate; consequently either mark of punctuation may be justified. But these uses of so (equivalent to accordingly or to so that) are somewhat colloquial and should, as a rule, be avoided in writing. A simple correction, usually serviceable, is to omit the word so and begin the first clause with as or since:I had never been in the place before; so I had difficulty in finding my way about.As I had never been in the place before, I had difficulty in finding my way about.
If a dependent clause, or an introductory phrase requiring to be set off by a comma, precedes the second independent clause, no comma is needed after the conjunction.
The situation is perilous, but if we are prepared to act promptly, there is still one chance of escape.
When the subject is the same for both clauses and is expressed only once, a comma is required if the connective is but. If the connective is and, the comma should be omitted if the relation between the two statements is close or immediate.
I have heard his arguments, but am still unconvinced.
He has had several years' experience and is thoroughly competent.
If two or more clauses, grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction, are to form a single compound sentence, the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon.
Stevenson's romances are entertaining; they are full of exciting adventures.
It is nearly half past five; we cannot reach town before dark.
It is of course equally correct to write the above as two sentences each, replacing the semicolons by periods.
Stevenson's romances are entertaining. They are full of exciting adventures.
It is nearly half past five. We cannot reach town before dark.
If a conjunction is inserted the proper mark is a comma (Rule 4).
Stevenson's romances are entertaining, for they are full of exciting adventures.
It is nearly half past five, and we cannot reach town before dark.
A comparison of the three forms given above will show clearly the advantage of the first. It is, at least in the examples given, better than the second form, because it suggests the close relationship between the two statements in a way that the second does not attempt, and better than the third, because briefer and therefore more forcible. Indeed it may be said that this simple method of indicating relationship between statements is one of the most useful devices of composition. The relationship, as above, is commonly one of cause or of consequence.
Note that if the second clause is preceded by an adverb, such as accordingly, besides, then, therefore, or thus, and not by a conjunction, the semicolon is still required.
Two exceptions to the rule may be admitted. If the clauses are very short, and are alike in form, a comma is usually permissible:
Man proposes, God disposes.
The gate swung apart, the bridge fell, the portcullis was drawn up.
Note that in these examples the relation is not one of cause or consequence. Also in the colloquial form of expression,
I hardly knew him, he was so changed,
a comma, not a semicolon, is required. But this form of expression is inappropriate in writing, except in the dialogue of a story or play, or perhaps in a familiar letter.
In other words, do not use periods for commas.
I met them on a Cunard liner several years ago. Coming home from Liverpool to New York.
He was an interesting talker. A man who had traveled all over the world and lived in half a dozen countries.
In both these examples, the first period should be replaced by a comma, and the following word begun with a small letter.
It is permissible to make an emphatic word or expression serve the purpose of a sentence and to punctuate it accordingly:
Again and again he called out. No reply.
The writer must, however, be certain that the emphasis is warranted, and that he will not be suspected of a mere blunder in syntax or in punctuation.
Rules 3, 4, 5, and 6 cover the most important principles in the punctuation of ordinary sentences; they should be so thoroughly mastered that their application becomes second nature.
Walking slowly down the road, he saw a woman accompanied by two children.
The word walking refers to the subject of the sentence, not to the woman. If the writer wishes to make it refer to the woman, he must recast the sentence:
He saw a woman accompanied by two children, walking slowly down the road.
Participial phrases preceded by a conjunction or by a preposition, nouns in apposition, adjectives, and adjective phrases come under the same rule if they begin the sentence.On arriving in Chicago, his friends met him at the station.When he arrived (or, On his arrival) in Chicago, his friends met him at the station.A soldier of proved valor, they entrusted him with the defence of the city.A soldier of proved valor, he was entrusted with the defence of the city.Young and inexperienced, the task seemed easy to me.Young and inexperienced, I thought the task easy.Without a friend to counsel him, the temptation proved irresistible.Without a friend to counsel him, he found the temptation irresistible.
Sentences violating this rule are often ludicrous.
Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap.
Wondering irresolutely what to do next, the clock struck twelve.
If the subject on which you are writing is of slight extent, or if you intend to treat it very briefly, there may be no need of subdividing it into topics. Thus a brief description, a brief summary of a literary work, a brief account of a single incident, a narrative merely outlining an action, the setting forth of a single idea, any one of these is best written in a single paragraph. After the paragraph has been written, examine it to see whether subdivision will not improve it.
Ordinarily, however, a subject requires subdivision into topics, each of which should be made the subject of a paragraph. The object of treating each topic in a paragraph by itself is, of course, to aid the reader. The beginning of each paragraph is a signal to him that a new step in the development of the subject has been reached.
The extent of subdivision will vary with the length of the composition. For example, a short notice of a book or poem might consist of a single paragraph. One slightly longer might consist of two paragraphs:
A report on a poem, written for a class in literature, might consist of seven paragraphs:
The contents of paragraphs C and D would vary with the poem. Usually, paragraph C would indicate the actual or imagined circumstances of the poem (the situation), if these call for explanation, and would then state the subject and outline its development. If the poem is a narrative in the third person throughout, paragraph C need contain no more than a concise summary of the action. Paragraph D would indicate the leading ideas and show how they are made prominent, or would indicate what points in the narrative are chiefly emphasized.
A novel might be discussed under the heads:
An historical event might be discussed under the heads:
In treating either of these last two subjects, the writer would probably find it necessary to subdivide one or more of the topics here given.
As a rule, single sentences should not be written or printed as paragraphs. An exception may be made of sentences of transition, indicating the relation between the parts of an exposition or argument. Frequent exceptions are also necessary in textbooks, guidebooks, and other works in which many topics are treated briefly.
In dialogue, each speech, even if only a single word, is a paragraph by itself; that is, a new paragraph begins with each change of speaker. The application of this rule, when dialogue and narrative are combined, is best learned from examples in well-printed works of fiction.
Again, the object is to aid the reader. The practice here recommended enables him to discover the purpose of each paragraph as he begins to read it, and to retain this purpose in mind as he ends it. For this reason, the most generally useful kind of paragraph, particularly in exposition and argument, is that in which
(a) the topic sentence comes at or near the beginning;
(b) the succeeding sentences explain or establish or develop the statement made in the topic sentence; and
(c) the final sentence either emphasizes the thought of the topic sentence or states some important consequence.
Ending with a digression, or with an unimportant detail, is particularly to be avoided.
If the paragraph forms part of a larger composition, its relation to what precedes, or its function as a part of the whole, may need to be expressed. This can sometimes be done by a mere word or phrase (again; therefore; for the same reason) in the topic sentence. Sometimes, however, it is expedient to precede the topic sentence by one or more sentences of introduction or transition. If more than one such sentence is required, it is generally better to set apart the transitional sentences as a separate paragraph.
According to the writer's purpose, he may, as indicated above, relate the body of the paragraph to the topic sentence in one or more of several different ways. He may make the meaning of the topic sentence clearer by restating it in other forms, by defining its terms, by denying the contrary, by giving illustrations or specific instances; he may establish it by proofs; or he may develop it by showing its implications and consequences. In a long paragraph, he may carry out several of these processes.
1 Now, to be properly enjoyed, a walking tour should be gone upon alone. 2 If you go in a company, or even in pairs, it is no longer a walking tour in anything but name; it is something else and more in the nature of a picnic. 3 A walking tour should be gone upon alone, because freedom is of the essence; because you should be able to stop and go on, and follow this way or that, as the freak takes you; and because you must have your own pace, and neither trot alongside a champion walker, nor mince in time with a girl. 4 And you must be open to all impressions and let your thoughts take colour from what you see. 5 You should be as a pipe for any wind to play upon. 6 “I cannot see the wit,” says Hazlitt, “of walking and talking at the same time. 7 When I am in the country, I wish to vegetate like the country,” which is the gist of all that can be said upon the matter. 8 There should be no cackle of voices at your elbow, to jar on the meditative silence of the morning. 9 And so long as a man is reasoning he cannot surrender himself to that fine intoxication that comes of much motion in the open air, that begins in a sort of dazzle and sluggishness of the brain, and ends in a peace that passes comprehension.—Stevenson, Walking Tours.
1 Topic sentence. 2 The meaning made clearer by denial of the contrary. 3 The topic sentence repeated, in abridged form, and supported by three reasons; the meaning of the third (“you must have your own pace”) made clearer by denying the contrary. 4 A fourth reason, stated in two forms. 5 The same reason, stated in still another form. 6–7 The same reason as stated by Hazlitt. 8 Repetition, in paraphrase, of the quotation from Hazlitt. 9 Final statement of the fourth reason, in language amplified and heightened to form a strong conclusion.
1 It was chiefly in the eighteenth century that a very different conception of history grew up. 2 Historians then came to believe that their task was not so much to paint a picture as to solve a problem; to explain or illustrate the successive phases of national growth, prosperity, and adversity. 3 The history of morals, of industry, of intellect, and of art; the changes that take place in manners or beliefs; the dominant ideas that prevailed in successive periods; the rise, fall, and modification of political constitutions; in a word, all the conditions of national well-being became the subject of their works. 4 They sought rather to write a history of peoples than a history of kings. 5 They looked especially in history for the chain of causes and effects. 6 They undertook to study in the past the physiology of nations, and hoped by applying the experimental method on a large scale to deduce some lessons of real value about the conditions on which the welfare of society mainly depend.—Lecky, The Political Value of History.
1 Topic sentence. 2 The meaning of the topic sentence made clearer; the new conception of history defined. 3 The definition expanded. 4 The definition explained by contrast. 5 The definition supplemented: another element in the new conception of history. 6 Conclusion: an important consequence of the new conception of history.
In narration and description the paragraph sometimes begins with a concise, comprehensive statement serving to hold together the details that follow.
The breeze served us admirably.
The campaign opened with a series of reverses.
The next ten or twelve pages were filled with a curious set of entries.
But this device, if too often used, would become a mannerism. More commonly the opening sentence simply indicates by its subject with what the paragraph is to be principally concerned.
At length I thought I might return towards the stockade.
He picked up the heavy lamp from the table and began to explore.
Another flight of steps, and they emerged on the roof.
The brief paragraphs of animated narrative, however, are often without even this semblance of a topic sentence. The break between them serves the purpose of a rhetorical pause, throwing into prominence some detail of the action.
The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive:
I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.
This is much better than
My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.
The latter sentence is less direct, less bold, and less concise. If the writer tries to make it more concise by omitting “by me,”
My first visit to Boston will always be remembered,
it becomes indefinite: is it the writer, or some person undisclosed, or the world at large, that will always remember this visit?
This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.
The dramatists of the Restoration are little esteemed to-day.
Modern readers have little esteem for the dramatists of the Restoration.
The first would be the right form in a paragraph on the dramatists of the Restoration; the second, in a paragraph on the tastes of modern readers. The need of making a particular word the subject of the sentence will often, as in these examples, determine which voice is to be used.
As a rule, avoid making one passive depend directly upon another.Gold was not allowed to be exported.It was forbidden to export gold (The export of gold was prohibited).He has been proved to have been seen entering the building.It has been proved that he was seen to enter the building.
In both the examples above, before correction, the word properly related to the second passive is made the subject of the first.
A common fault is to use as the subject of a passive construction a noun which expresses the entire action, leaving to the verb no function beyond that of completing the sentence.A survey of this region was made in 1900.This region was surveyed in 1900.Mobilization of the army was rapidly effected.The army was rapidly mobilized.Confirmation of these reports cannot be obtained.These reports cannot be confirmed.
Compare thesentence, “The export of gold was prohibited,” in which the predicate “was prohibited” expresses something not implied in “export.”
The habitual use of the active voice makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative principally concerned with action, but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a verb in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.Dead leaves covered the ground.The sound of a guitar somewhere in the house could be heard.Somewhere in the house a guitar hummed sleepily.The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired.Failing health compelled him to leave college.It was not long before he was very sorry that he had said what he had.He soon repented his words.
Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, non-committal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.He was not very often on time.He usually came late.He did not think that studying Latin was much use.He thought the study of Latin useless.The Taming of the Shrew is rather weak in spots. Shakespeare does not portray Katharine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare's works.The women in The Taming of the Shrew are unattractive. Katharine is disagreeable, Bianca insignificant.
The last example, before correction, is indefinite as well as negative. The corrected version, consequently, is simply a guess at the writer's intention.
All three examples show the weakness inherent in the word not. Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; he wishes to be told what is. Hence, as a rule, it is better to express even a negative in positive form.not honestdishonestnot importanttriflingdid not rememberforgotdid not pay any attention toignoreddid not have much confidence indistrusted
The antithesis of negative and positive is strong: