if william strunk was a typographer, would he omit needless spaces

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE has been around for almost one-hundred years, but it didn’t start its march to universal acclaim until 1959. That year saw the first edition of William Strunk’s little book expanded from 43 pages to 78 pages by “co-author” E.B. White. Forty years earlier, Professor Strunk had published the book as a guide for his students at Cornell University. It called for conservation in the use of the English language. In fact, if the book can be broken down into one dictum, it’s “Omit needless words.”

Strunk’s original book can be broken down into one dictum: “Omit needless words.”

It was the 1959 edition with White’s contributions that caught the world’s attention: the book has been in print ever since and is considered required reading (if not memorizing) by almost everyone pretending to know the language and its correct, contemporary use.

E. B. White was a successful author (Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web) and a former student of Strunk’s. In 1957, he wrote a complimentary article about the book for The New Yorker, describing it as a “forty-three-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.”

The Macmillan Company then commissioned White to revise and expand an earlier edition of the Strunk book. The first edition of the Strunk-and-White version of The Elements Of Style was published in 1959. The various editions of this book have sold approximately 2,000,000 copies. 1

Needless: a billboard with rules for using ellipses.

Image found on the Grammar Girl site.

Omit needless words

The Elements Of Style consists of a series of rules and suggestions. Here is Rule 17:

“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.” 2

These words have reverberated through the world of students, teachers, editors, and writers ever since. As I have written about Prof Strunk in other places, I will skip any more background material.

Needless: drawing of a cow split in half with an ellipsis in between parts.

Image found on the Serif of Nottingblog.

Putting two spaces after a period

I recently came across the article “People Really Hate Being Told to Put Only One Space After a Period” by John McDermott (MEL Magazine, April 26, 2017). He had previously posted an article informing readers that typing two spaces after a period (i.e., between sentences) is old-fashioned and unnecessary. He was amazed by the reaction:

“Who knew people felt so strongly about the number of spaces you’re supposed to put after a period? I certainly didn’t when I published this piece on Monday. I thought I was performing a genuine public service, informing people who never received the memo that putting two spaces after a period is an outdated, unnecessary construction. I expected an outpouring of support and thanks from people who were freed from the tyranny of that unsightly second space.”

Mr McDermott’s piece caused me to leave a comment concerning a similar argument about the use of possibly unnecessary spaces in the ellipsis. After posting my comment, I thought I should address the topic on my own site. 

I thought I was informing people who never received the memo that putting two spaces after a period is an unnecessary construction.

The ellipsis is a set of three periods indicating an omission. Historically, the correct manner of creating an ellipsis is by typing space-period-space-period-space-period-space ( . . . ).

But it has been common practice for decades to omit the interior spaces and type space-period-period-period-space ( … ).

Many computers have a special character for this new, spaceless ellipsis, so it is commonly found in text posted on the Internet. But I have also written about this topic (“Are There Supposed To Be Spaces Between The Dots In An Ellipsis?”) and so will spare you more on it. 3

Needless: three black dots against a blue sky with clouds in a gold frame.

Image accompanied the article “The Ellipsis Can Be Powerful … or Deeply Annoying. Here’s a Guide to Using It Well” by Katy Waldman.

Strunk as typographer

All of the above is a preface. All I wanted to say was something I hoped you would find clever: Had William Strunk been a typographer and wrote The Elements of Style calling for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the art of setting type, would the words we remember him by today be “Omit needless spaces”?

If William Strunk had been a typographer, would he have said, “Omit needless spaces”? Click To Tweet



1   So closely are the two names associated with this book, that when spoken aloud by an enthusiastic fan, they can sound like one word, strunkenwhite.

2   The entire contents of the fourth edition of The Elements Of Style (Allyn & Bacon, 2000) is readily available online. Rule 17 can be found on pages 32-33.

3   Supplementary reading: James Felici, The Art of Type: Dot Dot Dot; Grammar Girl, Ellipses Spurned; Michael Kroth, When Ellipses Meet; Cameron Hunt McNabb, The Mysterious History of the Ellipsis, From Medieval Subpuncting to Irrational Numbers; and The Punctuation Guide, Ellipses.

Needless: cartoon conversation between an ellipsis and a period,

Image found on HectorandHaddock site. The joke concerns the use of the ellipsis in ending an incomplete sentencing, implying an unfinished thought that could could on forever . . .