on william strunk and vigorously concise writing

WILLIAM STRUNK JR was Professor of English at Cornell University. In 1918, he self-published a guide for his students on English usage and writing called The Elements Of Style. The slim book consisted primarily of eight “elementary rules of usage” and ten “elementary principles of composition” accompanied by a “few matters of form.’ It urged vigorous and concise writing.

“Vigorously Concise Writing” is a revised version of a previously published article on this site.

Strunk’s students referred to The Elements Of Style as “The Little Book,” as if was less than fifty pages long. Its stated purpose was “to lighten the task of instructor and student by concentrating attention on a few essentials, the rules of usage, and principles of composition most commonly violated.”

Strunk’s style and his instructions were as terse as the writing he encouraged. Perhaps his most famous dictate is this one on “vigorous writing”:

“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.”

Concise writing: a 1919 copy of William Strunk's book THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE.

This is a copy of the 1919 edition of The Elements Of Style with its homemade look. Supposedly, there is an earlier printing of this book but I couldn’t find it on the Internet. Haven’t a clue as to its value as a collectable, but as it’s now a part of the Public Domain it’s surprising that no one has printed a facsimile edition. 1

A few words on Mr Strunk

There’s not a lot of biographical information on the man to be found on the Internet. He started teaching mathematics in 1890 and then spent forty-six years teaching English.

In 1937, he retired.

In 1945, he was diagnosed with “senile psychosis.”

In 1946, he died at the age of 77.

His Cornell obituary remembered him for “his kindness, his helpfulness as a teacher and colleague, his boyish lack of envy and guile.”


According to the Fiftieth Anniversary Edition of The Elements Of Style (2009), the three editions published under White’s editorship have sold more than 10,000,000 copies! First Editions (stated) with dust jackets seem to sell in the $150–300 range for clean copies.

Concise writing and clarity

This article is a brief introduction to Strunk and his posthumous collaborator E.B. White, and especially the book that the two of them will be (hopefully) remembered for for as long as the English language remains alive.

Here is an example of Strunk’s instructions to would-be authors (adapted from the original for clarity):

“Clarity is not the prize in writing, nor is it always the principal mark of a good style. There are occasions when obscurity serves a literary yearning, if not a literary purpose, and there are writers whose mien is more overcast than clear.

But since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue. And although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one.

Even to a writer who is being intentionally obscure or wild of tongue we can say, ‘Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!’

Even to writers of market letters, telling us (but not telling us) which securities are promising, we can say, ‘Be cagey plainly! Be elliptical in a straightforward fashion!’

Clarity, clarity, clarity.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences.

When you become hopelessly mired in a sentence, it is best to start fresh; do not try to fight your way through against the terrible odds of syntax. Usually what is wrong is that the construction has become too involved at some point; the sentence needs to be broken apart and replaced by two or more shorter sentences.

Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram.

Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity, and be clear! When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.”


A few words on Mr White

In 1959, The Elements Of Style was revised and enlarged by his former student, E.B. White. By this time, White was a well established author of poetry, short stories, novels, and non-fiction. He will be remembered and cherished as the author of three children’s books:

•  Stuart Little (1945)
Charlotte’s Web (1952)
•  The Trumpet of the Swan (1970)

The revised, posthumous “collaboration” of The Elements Of Style is among the most influential books ever written on the subject. It is usually referred to simply as “the Strunk and White book,” or just “the Strunk and White.” 2

Strunk and White as my gurus

I discovered The Elements Of Style in high school, although I don’t recall the circumstances under which I became aware of it. (A teacher? librarian? reference in another book?). I have fallen back on it so many times that I should have it memorized. (I don’t.) 3

So, should you be reading this and have any interest in using the amazing English language correctly and effectively, then find a copy of The Elements Of Style forthwith and read William Strunk instructions on concise, vigorous writing! 4

Editing and proofreading

I the original version of this article, I dismissed standard editing techniques and especially proofreading symbols. For this revision I created a new post and am directing those readers interested in knowing these marks to “About Editing And Those Confusing Proofreader’s Marks.”

HEADER IMAGE: The image at the top of this page is one of the few photos that exist of William Strunk Jr. He looks rather bland, hardly the type of man to have such a forceful impact on so many of his students.

Finally, book collectors should click on over to the My Sentimental Library site, where I found the image of the 1919 edition of Elements above. Say “Hello!” to Jerry Morris while you’re there. 5


1   The original edition of The Elements Of Style that Strunk wrote in 1918 was all of forty-three pages long. When Harcourt, Brace & Howe published it for the book market in 19520, it was expanded to fifty-two pages. It eventually found itself bloated out to eighty-five pages under White’s hand.

2   Hence the title that I have given a category on Neal Umphred Dot Com is Strunkandwhiten It. The articles within this category are mostly concerned with the continued misuse of the language in print.

3   In a way, William Strunk Jr and E.B. White have been two of my gurus in this particular life. (No one has just one guru in any life.)

4  The Elements Of Style is a staple of used book stores. I usually pay no more than a dollar for a paperback edition.

5   I (try to) follow every ‘rule’ in every edition—except one. The first one: “Form the possessive singular of nouns with [apostrophe-s]. Follow this rule whatever the final consonant.” Like many Americans my age, I was raised to form the possessive of nouns ending with an ‘s’ with just an apostrophe. As examples: “One of my websites is all about Elvis’ records and movies,” and “I think the Rolling Stones’ best album is BEGGARS BANQUET.”

Following Strunk & White, both Elvis’ and Stones’ need another ‘s’ after the apostrophe. Then we would get Elvis’s and Rolling Stones’s. I am still uncomfortable with this but found a compromise reading another style book (Bill Bryson?): I say the name in my head, and if saying it requires and additional syllable, then I add the ‘s’ after the apostrophe.

Saying the possessive of Elvis comes out as Elvises while the possessive of Rolling Stones remains Rolling Stones. Try it: we say Elvises greatest hits but we only say the Rolling Stones greatest hits!

So, I have compromised in my dotage: some nouns ending with an ‘s’ get just an apostrophe and some an apostrophe with an additional ‘s.’ I doubt that would please Master Strunk.

“There’s a certain Zen quality to [Strunk], like, ‘Be clear.’ There’s a lot being conveyed there in two words, in exactly how to do it—people will spend whole other books explaining.” – Barbara Wallraff

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