Columns > Published on July 20th, 2020

10 Gems From 100 Years of 'The Elements of Style'

I can’t keep a pair of pants looking presentable for more than 3 years. My body is well over 20 years old, way under 100, and it’s hit and miss with this damn thing.

And somehow the same book has been assisting writers for 100 years?

The original version of The Elements of Style was published in 1920. Let’s put this in context. If you ate the way people ate in 1920, you’d be eating Hoover Stew, which is a fancy name for hot dogs and mac and cheese. You’d also be at the very beginning of prohibition, which is contradictory: Hot dogs and mac seems like a very drunk idea. But the lack of booze may explain the clearheaded nature of The Elements of Style.

A style guide that’s pre-internet, pre-word-processor, even. Think how much the world has changed. Yet some of the advice here is as important today as it was then.

The Elements of Style, the original 1920 edition, is only about 50 pages long. And at 50 pages, it might be too long for most of us.

So, as a community service, and as a praise for this book’s longevity, here are some highlights.

1. Breaking the Rules

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.

The quote about learning the rules and breaking them has been attributed to a lot of different people. Pablo Picasso, although that attribution is questionable. Alexander McQueen, though he was born in 1969, which would make this a late quote. Even the Dalai Lama had this one thrown his way.

Strunk's version is the earliest version of the saying that I can nail down. And it explains that breaking a rule should be done to achieve something. So whenever someone in your workshop claims "I did that on purpose," feel free to ask them which rule they broke, what they planned to achieve, and whether they think they managed the intended effect.

2. Writing is Problem-Solving

One suggestion, if you can’t keep the apostrophe rules straight, is a workaround. Instead of "Achilees’ heel", just say, “The heel of Achilles.”

The idea of a style guide giving you workarounds is just fantastic. Instead of memorizing rules, start thinking about writing as a series of small problems to solve, and solve them your way. 

3. Use Concrete Language

Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.

He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward. [no]
He grinned as he pocketed the coin. [yes!]

This is an amazing example of so many rules that have been said so many ways. Show don’t tell. Use on-the-body description.

Based on one line that describes the same action, I know which book I’m reading and which one I’m tossing aside.

4. Tattoo-Worthy Advice

Vigorous writing is concise.

That’s a tattoo right there. Not enough people use "vigorous" to describe something done right. I think sex is the only thing where “vigorous” is used. Let’s sex up writing and be vigorous about it.

5. Minimalism

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.

Great analogies. I might compare this to a modern thing, good code shouldn’t have unnecessary lines. “Unnecessary” doesn’t mean omitting description or detail, which is the common complaint about minmalism. This complaint is usually a veiled gripe about the hard work of editing. You can describe a field of flowers all goddamn day if you want. Just know when it’s finished, and step away.

6. The Fact That

"The fact that" should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.

I was unaware of the fact that [no]
I was unaware that (did not know) [yes!]

the fact that he had not succeeded [no]
his failure [yes!]

the fact that I had arrived [no]
my arrival [yes!]

You know what? Yes. You’re right. “The fact that” is a phrase that should be like a big flag. “Hey, you can say this more directly and forcefully.”

7. Interesting

Interesting. Avoid this word as a perfunctory means of introduction. Instead of announcing that what you are about to tell is interesting, make it so.

That’s a goddamn mic drop. If something's interesting, you don't have to prepare me for it. It will stand on its own as interesting. Just like good-looking people do not have to announce themselves: "Prepare for my entrance, and prepare to see that I am good-looking." I think most of us will figure it out.

Strunk mentions "clever" as well, that it's overused. He's right. Cleverness is for watch-makers and Velociraptors jumping out at Muldoon.

8. The Literal Debate

Literal, literally. Often incorrectly used in support of exaggeration or violent metaphor.

A literal flood of abuse. [no]
A flood of abuse. [yes!]

Literally dead with fatigue [no]
Almost dead with fatigue (dead tired) [yes!]

This one might ruffle some feathers, but I tend to agree, and I have a reason!

We have plentiful modifiers that do the work currently shouldered by “literally.” And with the alteration of “actually” to be received as an aggressive nerd correction, the word “literally” has an important use, and there aren't many words that do the same work. It's meant to express the concreteness of something happening, not the level of it. A "literal shit storm" would be an exploding septic tank. A "literal shit storm" applied to a bad meeting? Why not replace "literal" with "complete" or "total" or "a shit storm so severe NOAA was tracking it on radar hours beforehand"?

9. People and The Public

"The people" is a political term, not to be confused with "the public". From the people comes political support or opposition; from the public comes artistic appreciation or commercial patronage.

Strunk thinks it’s possible to both dislike something politically and appreciate something artistically. Just throwing it out there.

10. Thanking You in Advance

This sounds as if the writer meant, “It will not be worth my while to write to you again.” In making your request, write, “Will you please,” or “I shall be obliged,” and if anything further seems necessary write a letter of acknowledgment later.

Ugh, yes. Don’t thank me in advance. It’s also a sort of mandate: Because you’ll be doing this, I’ll thank you now. If I can take the time to do something for you, you can take the time to thank me once the work is completed. Or, if you're giving me an order, just grow up and do it. Don't pretend like I'm doing you a favor.

Happy Centennial, boys. 

Buy The Elements of Style at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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