Get It Write: A Summary of Rules from The Elements of Style

Kenny Jahng —  2010/10/10 — 8 Comments

These days, you can’t get away from writing.  As technology proliferates, most people are finding themselves more and more engaged in generating and sharing ideas.

This of course necessitates good articulation through writing – whether through white papers, blogs, or even super short tweets and facebook status updates.

So it is increasingly becoming important that we understand how to communicate properly when we put our words to paper (or keyboard!).  The question then becomes:

Is your pen mightier than the sword?

Part of good writing is knowing the rules.  Many professional writers and academics look to The Elements of Style as the measuring stick for proper writing technique.  This summary of the rules used to be featured on an individual’s website, but it has since vanished — yet tons of people, university professors, and more are still trying to reference this summary of The Elements of Style.  While the original book stands at only 56 pages, this summary of Stunk & White’s rules is handy-dandy and it gets the gist of it across just fine.

Here they are:

A Summary of Rules from The Elements of Style

Strunk’s rules:

  1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s.
  2. In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.
  3. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.
  4. Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.
  5. Do not join independent clauses by a comma.
  6. Do not break sentences in two.
  7. Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation.
  8. Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption, and to announce a long appositive or summary.
  9. The number of the subject determines the number of the verb.
  10. Use the proper case of pronoun.
  11. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.
  12. Choose a suitable design and hold to it.
  13. Make the paragraph the unit of composition.
  14. Use the active voice.
  15. Put statements in positive form.
  16. Use definite, specific, concrete language.
  17. Omit needless words. Omit needless words. Omit needless words.
  18. Avoid a succession of loose sentences.
  19. Express coordinate ideas in similar form.
  20. Keep related words together.
  21. In summaries, keep to one tense.
  22. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

White’s rules:

  1. Place yourself in the background.
  2. Write in a way that comes naturally.
  3. Work from a suitable design.
  4. Write with nouns and verbs.
  5. Revise and rewrite.
  6. Do not overwrite.
  7. Do not overstate.
  8. Avoid the use of qualifiers.
  9. Do not affect a breezy manner.
  10. Use orthodox spelling.
  11. Do not explain too much.
  12. Do not construct awkward adverbs.
  13. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.
  14. Avoid fancy words.
  15. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.
  16. Be clear.
  17. Do not inject opinion.
  18. Use figures of speech sparingly.
  19. Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.
  20. Avoid foreign languages.
  21. Prefer the standard to the offbeat.

Anderson’s addenda:

  1. You may use they, them, their as the indefinite singular pronoun.
  2. Avoid the indefinite singular pronoun.

I don’t know or have any personal connection to this “Anderson” who must have been the one that originally boiled down the rule book down to these short lists above.  But I’m sure you’ll join me in saying, “Thanks Anderson!”


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8 responses to Get It Write: A Summary of Rules from The Elements of Style

  1. No! I wasn’t aware of The Elements of Style before this!

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