This book is not as well known in the UK as in America, so I discovered it quite late. But it summarises many of my personal views on good written English. In America, it is incredibly famous. It was labelled one of the All-Time 100 Nonfiction Books, the most influential books Written in English since 1923, by Time magazine. The Elements of Style, otherwise called the Strunk and White (after its authors), is a prescriptive language book – meaning it is forced upon students. With good reason. It is a writing style guide that will improve your writing skills if you take careful note of its simple and effective rules.
How this book will improve your writing skills
Though principally used by native-speaking English students in America, the book can help any student of English language. If you are an advanced English learner, it has valuable tips on writing and grammar. It is very simply written and easy to follow. And more succinct than most textbooks.
The latest edition contains 54 points to learn: a list of common errors in using words; 11 punctuation and grammar rules; 11 writing principles; 11 matters of form, and 21 reminders for a better style. Some of these have been revised to modernise the book.
Here is an example, demonstrating the use of the comma and the semi-colon:
Do not join independent clauses by a comma.
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.
These are tips for advanced learners. If you are looking for a way to make your English clearer and simpler, or have doubts about finer points of English language, this book will help. Note that not all the advice is canon (accepted English practice), but it is a good starting point to perfecting your written English.
History of The Elements of Style
The book was first written in 1918 by William Strunk, a professor at Cornell University. He humbly used it to teach his students better writing. One of his students went on to become the world-famous author E.B. White – best known for his children’s books Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. E.B. White rediscovered the book in 1958 and edited it for wider publication. Since then it has undergone 4 editions, and is now twice as long as its original, with updates for modern English use. It is, however, every bit as relevant now as it was nearly a century ago.
Where to get it
The book is actually available for free in its original form from the Gutenberg project, here. However, it’s such a valuable book you will probably want to use it often. It is so small you could carry it with you. Get it from Amazon here.