“Something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”
—Mark Twain’s definition of a classic (cited on p. 36)
Required by many English professors and recommended by such luminaries as Stephen King, this slim volume is nothing if not a classic on style. It is clear and concise. Much of it is in the form of listed rules which are then elaborated on, often with illustrations. The authors have a sense of a humor. Sometimes this humor shows a barb, as it does in the section “Misused Words and Expressions” under the entry for “flammable:”
An oddity, chiefly useful in saving lives. The common word for ‘combustible’ is ‘inflammable.’ But some people are thrown off by the ‘in-’ and think ‘inflammable’ means ‘not combustible.’ For this reason, trucks carrying gasoline or explosives are now marked ‘flammable.’ Unless you are operating such a truck and hence are concerned with the safely of children and illiterates use ‘inflammable.’” (p. 47)
According to co-author E. B. White’s introduction, “The Elements of Style” began life as a privately-published textbook he first encountered as a student in 1919. It was then Williams Strunk’s “parvum opus,” which he was later commissioned to revise.
While the book has much to offer the modern student and the modern seeker who wishes to understand English rhetoric (“Omit needless words.”), it has also many fossilized elements. Not only has some of its advice become useless, some of its advice is actually a hindrance to clear and concise writing. Perhaps the silliest thing it insists on, for example, is substituting the word “studentry” (like “citizenry”) for the expression “student body,” stating the latter is suggestive of a corpse.
The serves a purpose, that is, to bring attention to the usage and style, but it has become outmoded, even as it admits language is a living thing that changes.
The language is perpetually in flux: it is a living stream, shifting, changing, receiving new strength from a thousand tributaries, losing old forms in the backwaters of time. To suggest that a young writer not swim in main stream of this turbulence would be foolish indeed.” (p. 84)
No one interested in writing will rely on any single writing guide. Many of the more recent ones echo the basic ideas to be found in this one: avoid the passive voice unless you have a good reason, avoid adverbs unless you have a reason, make every word count, and so on. Given the good it contains, it may not be time to take it to the attic, but it shouldn’t be a primary guide either.