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

Es­ti­mated reading time is 4 min­utes.

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.”

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.


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


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.

This image was found on Facebook.

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.

This image was 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 the 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

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

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

FEATURED IMAGE: This image ac­com­pa­nied the ar­ticle “The El­lipsis Can Be Pow­erful ... or Deeply An­noying. Here’s a Guide to Using It Well” by Katy Waldman.



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.


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