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Strunk and White’s Elementary Principles of Composition from The Elements of Style
No text is more foundational for writers than the slim The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This book should be read and re-read by writers of ALL stripes, whether they be high school students, college students, or professionals. These classic tips are great for a higher score on the SAT Essay or ACT Essay. If you want to write lean, efficient, concise prose, follow these guidelines! Let’s get to it:
Make the Paragraph the Unit of Composition
This one’s quite important. How often do you read prose in which there seems to be no organizing principle to paragraphs, or worse, paragraphs that go on forever? Just as a house is built of rooms, a piece of writing is built of paragraphs. Each paragraph should serve a function in the context of the piece of writing. Within each paragraph, each sentence should serve its own function as well.
Paragraphs allows writers to subdivide subjects into topics, and each topic should receive its own paragraph.
Strunk and White give examples of the organizational composition of two different topics:
For the discussion of a novel:
For the analysis of a historical event:
A. What led up to the event.
B. Account of the event.
C. What the event led up to.
Begin Each Paragraph with a Topic Sentence and End by Connecting to the Beginning
High School English teachers are often sticklers for this rule, but it serves an important function for the reader. When your paragraphs have topic sentences, readers are able to discern at a glance what the paragraph in question is going to be about. When you end by connecting to the beginning, the reader is able to take away how the content of the paragraph relates to your overall message, or how it functions in the context of your overall argument.
Strunk and White suggest this general paragraph structure:
a. the topic sentence comes at or near the beginning;
b. the succeeding sentences explain or establish or develop the statement made in the topic sentence; and
c. the final sentence either emphasizes the thought of the topic sentence or states some important consequence.
In particular, Strunk and White stress the importance of NOT ending with a digression or an unimportant detail.
Use the Active Voice
English teachers often speak of “active voice” and “passive voice”–but what do those terms mean? “Active voice” refers to sentences in which the SUBJECT (or main noun) is DOING the verb, while “passive voice” refers to sentences in which the verb is BEING DONE by the subject.
Here are two examples:
ACTIVE VOICE: Mary walks her dog every day.
PASSIVE VOICE: The dog is walked by Mary every day.
Here are some examples from Strunk and White with wordy passive constructions and suggested active revisions:
|There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.||Dead leaves covered the ground.|
|The sound of the falls could still be heard.||The sound of the falls still reached our ears.|
|The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired.||Failing health compelled him to leave college.|
|It was not long before he was very sorry that he had said what he had.||He soon repented his words.|
Put Statements in Positive Form
Yes, it’s important to be positive, even in writing. What does this mean? It means you should “make definite assertions,” that it’s better to “avoid tame, colorless, hesitant, noncomittal language.” No one appreciates vagueness. Politicians in particular should take note of this rule! They’re often guilty of putting statements in negative form in order to obscure their meaning and lessen their impact. Here are some examples from Strunk and White:
|He was not very often on time.||He usually came late.|
|He did not think that studying Latin was much use.||He thought the study of Latin useless.|
|The Taming of the Shrew is rather weak in spots. Shakespeare does not portray Katharine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare’s works.||The women in The Taming of the Shrew are unattractive. Katharine is disagreeable, Bianca insignificant.|
In particular, Strunk and White stress that the word “not” should never be used “as a means of evasion.” Rather, it should be used as “a statement of denial.”
Omit Needless Words
This is probably the golden rule of efficient prose writing. Too often our writing is loaded with excess words. Think of flight attendents, who make announcements “at this time” instead of “now.”
Check out these two paragraphs given as an example by Strunk and White. They convey exactly the same information, but one does so in 26 words, while the other takes over TWICE as many words:
|Macbeth was very ambitious. This led him to wish to become king of Scotland. The witches told him that this wish of his would come true. The king of Scotland at this time was Duncan. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth murdered Duncan. He was thus enabled to succeed Duncan as king. (55 words.)||Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth achieved his ambition and realized the prediction of the witches by murdering Duncan and becoming king of Scotland in his place. (26 words.)|
Avoid a Succession of Loose Sentences
“Loose sentences” here should be understood to mean sentences with “two co-ordinate clauses, the second introduced by a conjunction or relative.”
Mary walked her dog on Friday, and on Saturday she stayed inside.
The movie was long, and it had no redeeming characters.
The United States exports a variety of items, and it imports many items as well.
Imagine how grating a million of these sentences sound when they’re placed one after the other! Read this miserable paragraph that Strunk and White give as an example of a succession of loose sentences:
The third concert of the subscription series was given last evening, and a large audience was in attendance. Mr. Edward Appleton was the soloist, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra furnished the instrumental music. The former showed himself to be an artist of the first rank, while the latter proved itself fully deserving of its high reputation. The interest aroused by the series has been very gratifying to the Committee, and it is planned to give a similar series annually hereafter. The fourth concert will be given on Tuesday, May 10, when an equally attractive programme will be presented.
Strunk and White complain not only of the “triteness” and “emptiness” of the paragraph, but more importantly its “mechanical symmetry and sing-song” quality. Read it aloud to experience how annoying it is.
Vary your sentences!
Express Co-ordinate Ideas in Similar Form
Another name for this important principle is PARALLELISM. It means that “expressions of similar content and function should be outwardly similar.”
Here are some examples of bad constructions made parallel:
|It was both a long ceremony and very tedious.||The ceremony was both long and tedious.|
|A time not for words, but action||A time not for words, but for action|
|Either you must grant his request or incur his ill will.||You must either grant his request or incur his ill will.|
|My objections are, first, the injustice of the measure; second, that it is unconstitutional.||My objections are, first, that the measure is unjust; second, that it is unconstitutional.|
Notice the pleasing symmetry and concision of the sentences on the right!
Keep Related Words Together
When words that ought to go together are separated, readers get confused. Consider these examples by Strunk and White and their corresponding revisions:
|Wordsworth, in the fifth book of The Excursion, gives a minute description of this church.||In the fifth book of The Excursion, Wordsworth gives a minute description of this church.|
|Cast iron, when treated in a Bessemer converter, is changed into steel.||By treatment in a Bessemer converter, cast iron is changed into steel.|
Sentences with misplaced modifiers often lead to ambiguity and illogical ideas. Again, consider Strunk and White’s examples and their revisions:
|There was a look in his eye that boded mischief.||In his eye was a look that boded mischief.|
|He wrote three articles about his adventures in Spain, which were published in Harper’s Magazine.||He published in Harper’s Magazine three articles about his adventures in Spain.|
|This is a portrait of Benjamin Harrison, grandson of William Henry Harrison, who became President in 1889.||This is a portrait of Benjamin Harrison, grandson of William Henry Harrison. He became President in 1889.|
In Summaries, Keep to One Tense
As a rule, verb tense should remain consistent! It’s annoying when the tense shift several times when it ought to stay the same.
Strunk and White here introduce the concept of literary present tense, which means that when discussing works of literature, use of the present tense is preferred.
Place the Emphatic Words of a Sentence at the End
Writers should be aware that the most prominent position in a sentence is the end. The beginning is the second-most prominent position. Consider these examples from Strunk and White:
|Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways.||Humanity, since that time, has advanced in many other ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.|
|This steel is principally used for making razors, because of its hardness.||Because of its hardness, this steel is principally used in making razors.|
In the examples on the right, we learn the most important information at the end of the sentence. Thus, we’re more likely to remember it!
Of course, all rules have exceptions! Know these guidelines and follow them when applicable, but feel free to break them for artistic reasons! If your aim is to write in a concise way, however, Strunk and White’s principles are invaluable.
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That’s it for now. Be sure to order your own copy of The Elements of Style to read and keep as a reference!
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