The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White Review 3/5

Overall Impression: This is a tiny little book with a lot of information, but does anyone actually TRY and make these writing books interestingThe Elements of Style by William Strunk JR. and E.B. White as well as informative? Zzz.

This was a book set to me as recommended reading for my minor in creative writing at university. Being a good little student I decided to play along. It’s geared towards both creative and formal essay writing.
Of my own free will I never would have picked up any kind of grammar book even if you paid me. Maybe it’s because I hate the idea of writing as a formula, or perhaps it’s because the idea of writing being filled with rules is horrifying to me as it immediately makes it feel less fun. But I suppose…. *sigh* that it is kind of necessary. Maybe……
I’m also using this as part of the Eclectic Reader Challenge, partly because I need a non-fiction book and partly because it was a reason to push myself to actually read it all, lol. Yep that’s correct, I read the whole yawnsome thing from cover to cover! -_-
I’ve never reviewed anything non-fiction before, but I shall do my best. Wish me luck!

Blurb from Goodreads (as mine doesn’t have a blurb at all):
You know the authors’ names. You recognize the title. You’ve probably used this book yourself. This is The Elements of Style, the classic style manual, now in a fourth edition. A new Foreword by Roger Angell reminds readers that the advice of Strunk & White is as valuable today as when it was first offered.This book’s unique tone, wit and charm have conveyed the principles of English style to millions of readers. Use the fourth edition of “the little book” to make a big impact with writing.

According to the introduction this book was originally printed by William Strunk Jr. as a little 43 page guide to help his students. E.B White just so happened to be one of those students, and many years later he was asked to revise it. As a big practitioner of the book he accepted, updating it as well as adding a few extra pearls of wisdom and so TA DA, we have The Elements of Style 4th edition.

The book has five main sections: Elementary Rules of Usage – A fancy way of saying general writing rules. Elementary Principles of Composition e.g use an active voice, omit needless words, avoid lose sentences etc. A Few Matters of Form – A small section on exclamation marks, hyphen’s and quotation mark rules. Words and Expressions Commonly Misused – Such as effect vs affect and farther vs further and finally An Approach to Style – A more subjective look at writing with a few helpful hints such as don’t overwrite, overstate or explain too much.

The first thing I noticed about this book is that it’s not for beginners – of which I am one. It uses a lot of terms and expects you to understand them, and to me they sounded like French, and let me tell you I suck at French. Some of it I managed to decode while other sections led to extreme pen tapping and angry sighing. Because of this, it’s usefulness was limited to me personally. After stating a fact or rule in this book there was always an example, but I often found that the example was not explained enough in order for me to fully grasp the concepts. Problematic oui? (One of the only French words I know, apart from bibliothéque – library :P)

However The Elements of Style does still hold useful advice and in some ways I can see this book becoming a useful companion and reference guide. The main message it preaches is clarity and precision. Aka, you shouldn’t say in five words what you can say in one. I think this was important for me to hear as I tend to overwrite and say things the long way round – I am a big fan of phrases like ‘the fact that’ and ‘the question as to which/whether’ because I like the way they roll off the tongue and I always felt they made me sound, I don’t know smarter? But when it comes down to it, these are excess words that I don’t need. Sure, in some cases it’s my choice (like on my blog, because I make the rules mwuhuhuu!) but if I’m writing an academic essay with a word limit it’s a waste of words, something I hadn’t really realized until now.

There are also a lot of ‘rules’ that are common sense which made me feel a lot better about my own writing, because I do a lot of it automatically already! However there are other rules in here that I didn’t even know existed which was quite illuminating. I wouldn’t have thought/known these for instance:

‘When a word must be divided at the end of a line, consult a dictionary to learn syllables be-
which division should be made.’ –
p. 38

I usually just split the line wherever I wanted!
I also thought this was interesting, it makes a lot of sense but I had never really consciously considered it before, it has so much more impact simply by switching the words around!

‘The proper place in the sentence for the word or group of words that the writer desires to make the most prominent is usually the end.’
e.g ‘Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways’ made better by ‘Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude’
  – p. 32.

One of the criticisms I have of this book though, is that I didn’t necessarily always agree with what it was saying, even when it was in the section that was supposedly the law and not up for discussion. The authors statement to ‘Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious the coy and the cute’  for instance seemed a little rash and also an overstatement. Surely it depends on the context? That would be correct if you were writing an essay, but what about if you were writing chick lit? Surely that is a genre that relies on the coy and cute. Equally if you are trying to portray an arrogant or pretentious character, wouldn’t that be the exact type of language you would want to use? I think I know what the author was trying to get at, but it is not explained in a very clear way.

The other issue I have is that I don’t really like the writing style used in this book – ironic I know, seeing as it’s a book on how to write well! Of course there’s nothing technically wrong with it, but it is also devoid of any sort of feeling or interest. I know, I know it’s non-fiction but still, that doesn’t mean that it has to be boring! I just didn’t like the narrative voice, even though it was minimal. There was this horrible smugness to it all and I could just picture this stuck up writer with a superiority complex creating this book while chuckling with glee at his own intelligence. Essh. Of course, the two writers both have vast experience in the area of writing with their own theories and preferences, but no matter how much a person knows, I just can’t stand people that think they’re superior, even if they are. It’s one of my personal pet hates. How about a grammar book with pretty colours and enthusiastic writing with authors sharing their love for the topic and acting as your personal cheerleader? No? Okay then, I guess that would be too enjoyable…

I had never thought about reading a writing help book before because well, everyone has their own views on writing. While some points are facts that can’t be denied a lot of it at the end of the day is just opinion. However this book straddles the line between the two reasonably well and makes it clear which sections are hard fact or personal preference. This is the first grammar book I have read, so I don’t really have anything to compare it to but I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in writing, either for personal reasons or as a potential career. I would not however, recommend it for beginners because some of the terminology is confusing and you are expected to understand it. As a beginner myself I managed to traverse it with difficulty, but I’m sure there are better books to start with!

I will leave you with a quote that I think sums up the books message pretty well :):

‘Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.’  – xv/xvi

Writing Style: 3/5
Originality: 3/5
Entertainment: 1/5 (Sorry guys, grammar doesn’t float my boat.)
Usefulness: 4/5
Would I recommend this book? Yes, definitely if you have a tendency to overwrite! But in terms of teaching specifics of grammar there are probably better books out there.

Overall 3/5

P.S. I got my first short story back and I got a 2:1! YAY. 😀 The marker said the grade was pulled down a lot by my punctuation though, looks like this book didn’t help at all in that respect! Take of that what you will. 😉

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32 thoughts on “The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White Review 3/5

    • Ha ha no, I don’t think it’s really meant to be but I thought if I’m going to do this, I might as well read the whole damn thing! Was really quite a short book though so it wasn’t too bad. 🙂

      Thanks! * receives extra points*

  1. I’ve mentioned GRAMMAR FOR GROWNUPS before to you on GR, and I think you said you had it. Much more fun and explains grammar a lot simpler than this. Or should that be: Explains grammar in a way which is much simpler and more fun.

    Hey, putting important btis at the end does work!

    I read this cover to cover as well (because Stephen King told me to in ON WRITING 🙂 ), but most of this stuff comes automatically when you write anyway. Simplest test is read it out loud.

    You sounded a little confused on some of the rules when it came to characters. What they’re talking about is the narrative, rather than the dialogue. It’s fine to have a character say, “I ain’t gonna do that” but unless the narrative is first person, the grammar should always follow the rules.
    …Unless you want to break them, and all writers break them. (My usual break is the single sentence paragraph. Drives my wife mad when she reads over it.)

    Consider your audience as well. It’s fine to say “They expediated their progress, departing with alacrity.” But it’s also fine to say “They left in a hurry.”

    I think a lot of the rules have relaxed since Strunk and White. And remember this is a book for more formal writing rather than novel writing. Your purpose in writing should always be to tell a story, and to make that story entertaining. Break whatever rules you want; as long as the story carries people along, they’ll forgive you for it.

    Good job on a 2.1, whatever that means. Sounds good!

    • Hey Tony. 🙂

      No I don’t own the book yet, I thought I’d read this one first just to see if it helped because I thought I might not need another one after it. Obviously that wasn’t the case, lol! So it looks like I might be investing in that one soon too. Although there are some writing skills workshop thingies at my uni that I will probably attend, so then some people can actually explain it to me! I feel like the issue of my terrible grammar has gone on too long and it bugs me, I don’t like the idea of people reading things I’ve written that probably have glaring errors. Like each time I publish a post on here I silently wonder how many unknown mistakes I’ve made. Speaking of ‘On Writing’ that’s my next required reading, it’s just come through the post! Did you think it was any good? 🙂

      No I know that he wasn’t talking about characters, I’m talking about the novel’s writing as a whole. I don’t know if you’ve ever read a chick-lit book for instance but everything about it is ‘cute’ and that includes the narrative and the dialogue (it’s not the same with all genre’s though obviously). Equally from what I read first person seems to be the norm these days, which reinforces it even more. The point is that I get what he was trying to say, but the way he wrote it was not clear exactly what he was alluding to, he didn’t at any point note whether he was talking about dialogue or narrative etc which was my general issue with the book as a whole, it’s not all that clear!

      Ha ha, that is very true! 😀 That’s true, good advice. I once heard somewhere you have to learn the rules before you can break them. I like the saying but have no clue who said it!

      Thanks, a ‘first’ is the highest you can get and 2:1 is next.

      • On Writing is a fantastic book. Mainly because it’s so encouraging and enthusiastic. No matter if you love or hate Stephen King, the sheer pleasure he gets from writing is infectious. Well worth your time to read it.

        So a 2:1 and it’s the first piece of writing you’ve done in years? Outstanding! Are you going to share it with the world on here?

      • Ohh really? That’s good to hear! I’m pretty interested to read it because I haven’t actually read any Stephen King yet, maybe On Writing will give me the push I need to pick up some of the books by him I have on my shelf. 🙂

        Hehee yepp! 🙂 Hmm….I’m not too sure yet, I might not with this one just because I might potentially end up using it for a novel, and even though there’s no such thing as an original story, I’d quite like to keep it under wraps. The second story I do though, I might put on here if you ask nicely. 😉

  2. Erg, it sounds like an algebra book for English. I hated maths, so would definitely hate this book. Mind you, I hated English as well. And French too.

    Well done on the 2:1. I didn’t go to university ‘cos I’m a bit fick, so I haven’t got a clue what it means, but the smiley suggests it’s good.

    • Good comparison! It is kind of like that. Like you I hated Maths, AND English too. Most people find that weird because I love books so much but I just couldn’t stand it!

      Thanks 🙂 The smiley is indeed a good sign, lol. A ‘first’ is the highest you can get and 2:1 is next, I thought it was pretty good considering it’s the first thing I’ve written in years and they poo pooed my grammar. 😛

  3. I hate this particular book; it was a staple of my English classes in high school and regardless of the validity of what it was saying I just wanted to shove it up the writers’ pompous asses… I mean- um, yeah. I mean that. They’re just so dry and full of themselves. I grudgingly admit that as a reference point it’s useful enough, and when I just used it as a reference, I was able to cope with it (I think small doses helped take their method of conveying information). For me one of the most engaging writing books I’ve ever read was On Writing by Stephen King. Regardless of what his books, the advice he has in there is solid and presented in a really honest and engaging way. I also have to admit that I love Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners, but mostly because of the things she has to say about being a writer who is religious, which is admittedly a rather specialized topic.
    Anywho, congrats for getting through this cover to cover- that’s a feat of endurance I don’t think I could possibly have managed 🙂

    • Yaaaay! So it’s not just me. That was pretty much the exact feeling I had! They are so irritating and arrogant. I thought maybe it was just me being over-judgy or something but I did honestly feel like it was coming across that way. It took me a long time to read the first section of the book, because it was difficult to understand, the second half went by pretty quickly though.
      I made sure to highlight the important bits so I don’t have to read through the whole bloomin’ thing again!

      Ohh, I’m really glad to hear that you enjoyed On Writing! 🙂 That’s actually the next book I’ve been assigned and it just came through the post a couple of days ago, I haven’t started it yet. I’ve heard from a few people that it’s good now so I’m hoping I’ll like it equally! I’ve never heard of Mystery and manners but it sounds interesting. 🙂

      Haha thanks, I won’t be doing it again any time soon!

  4. I love this review and your likes and dislikes of the book (particularly the fact that you don’t really like the writing style used in the book.) I’ve never read a ‘how to write’ or ‘style’ book because writing is such an individual thing and I truly believe there are no rules to writing a great story 😀

    • Haha thank you. 🙂 I know right? it just seemed so ironic when it was trying to explain how to write in a correct and engaging way and it was managing to do the exact opposite!
      I totally agree, that’s why I have never picked one up until now. It was still quite an interesting experience though, so I’m glad I read it, I did learn a couple of things. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting!

  5. Great, detailed review! The title of the book itself seems a little flamboyant, though I doubt that there’s any book that can perfectly describe the rules and tips of writing – writing is subjective in several areas. It’s unfortunate that this book wasn’t really exciting; On Writing by Stephen King is still my all-time favorite book about writing.

    • Thanks Thomas! It’s my first non-fiction review so I wasn’t too sure how to go about it, but it looks like it turned out ok. 🙂
      Yeah it definitely is, in fact the title probably sums up the whole writing style of the book really, a little pretentious.
      I agree, that is why I was so cautious when I had to read this book, I felt like it was a little pointless because writing isn’t really subjective, but it did turn out to have a few useful tips!
      Oooh that’s a good sign because On Writing is my next required reading. 🙂

  6. Thanks for reviewing this book; I own a few writing books and I saw this book recommended in one of them. I don’t like how-to-write books that aren’t engaging so I’ll be sure to avoid this. Also, I haven’t read On Writing by Stephen King either, but Iike you, I’ve heard it’s great. I haven’t had the need to read that book b/c I only plan to write YA fiction and poetry for now, but I may read it someday.

    • No problem! I didn’t realize you were interested in it, but I’m glad that my review could be useful. 🙂 I mean, The Elements of Style does have some useful aspects to it for certain writing issues, mainly for anyone who overwrites, this book is good for drilling that into you lol. But the rest of it is either common sense or grammar rules that I found difficult to understand.
      Well because it’s in my required reading for this semester, I will probably have a review up of On Writing in the near future too, so I will let you know if it could be useful for YA. 🙂

  7. I remember really enjoying “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” That was a fun book that spoke about grammar and the misteps you can take. I love your word, yawntastic for this book.
    Great review

      • It floors me that you read this style book in the same way as any other read. Amazing! I’m more about keeping for reference when needed rather than actually diving in. Kudos!

        Definitely check out “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” by Lynne Truss. It has the personality and humor you’re looking for as well as the grammar/punctuation rules you seek. It will change the way you write, for sure. [Don’t use phrases like “for sure.” Ha!]

        Everyone’s favorite, “On Writing,” will also change you, though it should not propel you toward King’s novels other than trusting him as a master of the craft. His subjects are far different… obvs.

      • Haha I think it did most people, but I like to be thorough! At first I dipped in and out of it using the book as you say for reference but then I read the whole thing so that I could review it properly. I wouldn’t want to only explain half the picture! Thanks. 🙂

        You know I’d totally forgotten about this recommendation! So I’ve added it to my want-to-read section of Goodreads so I remember. I’m loving the cute panda’s. I do love a bit of humour in my how-to books, it’s the only thing that makes them bearable, that’s one of the reasons that I loved On Writing (which was also set by my creative writing course). 🙂 I am getting more conscious about my grammar by the day so it is very likely I will invest in this, thanks.

  8. I am a particular fan of writing advice that comes from accomplished practitioners like Stephen King, Elmore Leonard and E.B. White. “The Elements of Style,” like Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” is a bit hard to read cover to cover. So take a break every few pages and reread “Charlotte’s Web.”

    • Hi 🙂 Yeah I think that makes sense, what better way to learn how to write than by referring to those with the most experience?
      While I read the whole thing cover to cover it was over a period of months, very spaced out and I also didn’t read it in order either! So I don’t think it hindered the message in any way. I haven’t actually read anything by E. B. White either so that didn’t really help to spur me on.

      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  9. Hello, I stumbled upon this post after googling “Thoughts on William Strunk Jr’s Elements of style. Stephen King referred it in his book On Writing, so I thought I had to read it. Some of this, as a journalist, has already been drilled into my writing, and some I find quirky. You mentioned getting a 2:1 on your short story. I’m not sure what that means. Its good I hope. If so, congratulations! Its been a while since you made this post, I wonder how your short story adventure is going.
    You mentioned that this book did not help you much since you were marked down for punctuation. Did you use this as a guide for your submission?

    • I remember Stephen King referencing it too.

      a 2:1 is kind of like getting a B. It’s the grade people normally end up with at university. Imagine it like there’s only 3 grades and a 1:1 is like an A, a 2:1 a B, and a 2:2 a C – but C is the lowest grade. In other words, I think it helped me, but not enough, LOL. I did use it as a guide for my submission, but I will put my hands up and say that my base knowledge was so bad that a lot of it was also hard for me to understand (my grammar knowledge is kind of non-existent, I go more on feel and don’t know many technical terms). It’s a tricky one, because I would say for this book, you need some knowledge to understand it.. but then, for most people that understand it, it probably would seem like it was stating the obvious.

      I think it’s probably just a good staple in the same way having a dictionary is – as a reference guide. Something that you get out at the dinner table when you have a argument over a piece of grammar! 🙂

  10. Pingback: Book Review: The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (4/5) | Taking on a World of Words

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