In my last post, I waxed a bit nostalgic about William Strunk and E.B. White’s Elements of Style turning 50 this month. I also summarized my favorite tips from this classic writing guide, including using active voice, omitting needless words, using specific, concrete language, and above all else, striving for clarity.
Before concluding, I highlighted the advice that it’s best not to break rules of grammar, without first understanding the rules. And I provided White’s eloquent description of style as “what you are, rather than what you know” (p. 84).
In the following lists, I provide takeaways (again, just some of my favorites) from each section of Strunk and White. You can’t go wrong, applying these rules to your next document or blog post. I plan on using this list as my own personal style sheet, when I want to review a rule. I hope these tips help you as well.
Elementary Rules of Usage
The following list provides rules of usage for punctuation and grammar:
- “A common error is to write it’s for its, or vice versa. The first is a contraction, meaning it is. The second is a possessive” (p. 1).
- “In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last…This comma is often referred to as the serial comma” (p. 2).
[Peg’s Note: Writers and editors often disagree on the use of the serial comma. Technical writers most often use the serial comma, as it can sometimes resolve ambiguity.]
- “Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause” (p. 5).
- “Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation. A colon tells the reader that what follows is closely related to the preceding clause…It usually follows an independent clause and should not separate a verb from its complement or a preposition from its object” (p. 7).
[Peg’s Note: Please never, never use a colon after a verb, preceding a bulleted list. It gives me the willies.]
Elementary Principles of Composition
The following list provides principles of writing:
- “Choose a suitable design and hold to it. A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing” (p.15).
- “Use the active voice. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard” (p. 15.)
- “Use definite, specific, concrete language” (p. 21).
- “Omit needless words” (p. 23).
- “Avoid a succession of loose sentences (p. 25). This rule refers especially to loose sentences of a particular type: those consisting of two clauses, the second introduced by a conjunction or relative” (p. 25).
- “Express coordinate ideas in similar form…following the principle of parallel construction” (p. 26). [Parallel construction is especially important in bulleted lists.]
A Few Matters of Form
The following list provides tips on matters of form:
- “Exclamations. Do not attempt to emphasize simple statements by using a mark of exclamation” (p. 34).
- “Hyphen. When two or more words are combined to form a compound adjective, a hyphen is usually required. Do not use a hyphen between words that can better be written as one word (p. 34). The steady evolution of the language seems to favor union: two words eventually become one, usually after a period of hyphenation (p. 35). [When in doubt, consult a dictionary.]
- “Quotations. Typographical usage dictates that the comma be inside the marks, though logically it often seems not to belong there” (p. 36).
- “Syllabication. When a word must be divided at the end of the line, consult a dictionary to learn the syllables between which divisions should be made” (p. 38).
Words and Expressions Commonly Misused
The following list provides tips on how to avoid commonly misused words and expressions:
- “And/or. A device, or shortcut, that damages a sentence and often leads to confusion or ambiguity”
- “Can. Means “am (is, are) able.” Not to be used as a substitute for may” (p. 42).
[In technical documents, “can” is almost always used.]
- “Data. Like strata, phenomena, and media, data is a plural and is best used with a plural verb. The word, however, is slowly gaining acceptance as singular” (p. 44).
- “Etc. In formal writing, etc. is a misfit. An item important enough to call for etc. is probably important enough to be named” (p. 45).
- “-ize. Do not coin verbs by adding this tempting suffix. Why say utilize when there is the simple, unpretentious use? (p. 50).
- “Secondly, thirdly, etc. Unless you are prepared to begin with firstly and defend it (which will be difficult), do not prettify numbers with –ly. Modern usage prefers second, third, and so on” (p. 57).
- “Avoid splitting infinitives unless you want to place unusual stress on the adverb. Listen to your ear to decide whether to split” (p. 58). “The split infinitive is another trick of rhetoric in which the ear must be quicker than the handbook. Some infinitives seem to improve on being split” (p. 78).
An Approach to Style
In Chapter 5, which White authored entirely, he offers the following reminders for improving writing style:
- “Place yourself in the background” (p. 70).
- “Do not overstate” (p. 73).
- “Do not explain too much. It is seldom advisable to tell all (p. 75).
- “Avoid fancy words. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready, and able” (p. 76).
- “Years ago, students were warned not to end a sentence with a preposition; time, of course, has softened that rigid decree. Not only is the preposition acceptable at the end, sometimes it is more effective in that spot than anywhere else” (p. 78).
- “Be clear” (p. 79).
- “Do not use initials for the names of organizations or movements unless you are certain the initials will be readily understood. Write things out… A good rule is to start your article by writing out names in full, and then, later, when your readers have got their bearings, to shorten them” (p. 81).
- As for the advice, “Never call a stomach a tummy without good reason” (p. 77), White reminds us to avoid “the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute” (p. 76).
Peg’s Note: I think advisors as helpful as Strunk and White would permit us to still ask how our kids’ tummies are doing, after stomach aches. They would probably encourage us, however, to consider being cute in this way, as only the exception to the rule.