Notes from "The Elements of Style"

2018-02-09   ·   5 min read

I recently read The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Here's what I learned.

All h2 headers are titles of chapters from the book. Subheadings with quotations are also from the book but may not necessarily be headings in the book. Otherwise, subheadings are my own.

I. Elementary Rules of Usage

Who vs Whom

Use "who" when "who" is the subject. Use "whom" when "whom" is the object. When in doubt, think about rephrasing the sentence for a male or female person: would you use he/she or him/her?

"A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject." (p.13)

Phrases at the beginning must refer to the subject that follows later. For example, "Sweating buckets down the trail, the man jogged furiously." But a participial phrase can almost never refer to the object of the sentence. For example, "Shivering in the cold, the mother took of her coat and wrapped it around her daughter." Here, the mother is the one shivering and not the daughter. This sentence is ambiguous to the readers so it should be rephrased as the following: "The mother—shivering in the cold—took of her coat and wrapped it around her daughter."

II. Elementary Principles of Composition

Assert the definitive and positive

Avoid using "not" because it often leads to indefinite setences and elongates a sentence. For example, "He does not know what to do" can be replaced by "He was unsure of what to do" or, better yet, "He was confused". Sentences that assert the positive tend to be definitive and concise.

Parallel Ideas

Parallel ideas should have parallel wording. For example, the Declaration of Independence uses "He has ...." for several sentences when listing out what the King of Britain had done. Another example is the following: "On the farm they run around the fields and in the city they run around the park".

Related words should be kept together

The adjective and noun should be kept close. The noun and the verb should be kept close. The modifier and the modified should be kept close. Related words should be kept close to avoid the unambiguity that often results from placing words/phrases in between related words.

Serial Position Effect

The Serial Position Effect holds true both in user experience design and in writing sentences. The most important, or strongest, wording should be saved for either the beginning or the ending of a sentence.

III. A Few Matters of Form

Citing Excerpts

When citing an excerpt, that contains several lines, from another written work, avoid using quotes around the excerpt (unless the excerpt uses quotes). The writing from the excerpt should be stylistically separated from the rest of the writing such as through indentation. In markdown-to-html formatting, I believe italicizing the excerpt would be effective at visually separating the excerpt from the rest of the writing.

And use colons preceding the excerpt like this:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

But if it's just a line, then this will do: "Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet...."

Italicize Works

As we do with titles of art works, one should italicize the titles of written works. The book suggests omitting articles (e.g. "A", "The") that might start a title when a possesive noun is preceding the title.

IV. Words and Expressions Commonly Misused

Elude: The word "elude" appears in the text because the text says "allude" and "elude" are often misused. I didn't know about the word "elude" until after Googling the definition. When Googling "define elude", Google shows a card with what looks like dictionary entry complete with the definition and usage. But within the card, at the bottom of the card, was something I hadn't noticed before:

"Elude" and "Allude"

And/or: Oh no, I use this really often. The text argues this can lead to ambiguity and, therefore, the text suggests using "or" and adding the option "both" or "all of the above" when listing options.

As to whether: As to whether

Currently: When used with "now" and a verb in the present tense, it can be omitted.

Due to: Incorrectly used in place of "through" or "because of". Correctly used in place of "attributable to".

Etc.: Means "and other things". Should not be used at the end of a list of examples.

Irregardless: Irregardless

Lay vs Lie: "Lay" is transitive but "lie" is intransitive.

Less vs Fewer: "Less" for the continuous and "fewer" for the discrete.

Unique: It's not continuous. It's either unique or not unique. Words like "most" or "very" should not precede "unique".

Utilize: You can almost always just use "use".

V. An Approach to Style

"Write in a way that draws the reader's attention to the sense and substance of the writing" (p.70)

Focus on the nouns and verbs, not on the adjectives and adverbs.


I like and enjoyed reading this book; it was clear and concise in its teachings on how to write well. Each teaching, except when reiterating an arbitrary English grammar rule, was backed up with reason, examples, or sometimes both.

← Older: Arrow Functions in ES6 (ECMAScript 2015)

Newer: Notes from "Manage Your Day-to-Day"