The book was originally written in 1919 by Professor William Strunk Jr. and was self-published by the author. It was professionally published in 1935, then again in 1957, 1972, and 2000. It’s fair to say this book has stood the test of time.
Strunk and White Elements of Style consists of:
- 11 Rules of Usage
- 11 Principles of Composition
- 21 Style Guidelines
- Commonly Misused Words and Expressions
From the introduction:
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. (page xvi)
Professor Strunk, although one of the most inflexible and choosy of men, was quick to acknowledge the fallacy of inflexibility and the danger of doctrine. (page xvii)
Where I work we argue a bit about how relevant Strunk and White remains, with some taking the position of fully committed fans and other wanting more freedom (translate wanting to be lazy and not understand/follow the rules of grammar or of good writing style.) I guess you can figure out where I fall on this controversy.
[Written on September 2016: I’m very sorry to do this. I realize this was a popular post and provides a comprehensive summary of the book. However, it occurs to me that my review may have gone too far. I have have revealed too much of the book and instead of mere commenting on the book and giving examples, I gave far too many examples and very few comments. For this reason, today I have chosen to delete much of this post. I recommend that you buy the book. It is a great resource for any writer.]
Outside of graduate school, I’ve never heard it called “conventions,” but I do sometimes catch myself explaining concepts to people in this way. I’ll say: we do this because it’s our convention. What I mean is: we do this because it’s our chosen style. “We” have all agreed to do it this way. It isn’t necessarily “right” or “wrong,” but the group has decided how the group wants the particular issue of style to be done. It comes down to expectations. What is expected and how far can (should) you push to make a difference?
Conventions are the mechanical correctness of the piece—spelling, grammar and usage, paragraphing (indenting at the appropriate spots), use of capitals, and punctuation. Writing that is strong in conventions has usually been proofread and edited with care. Handwriting and neatness are not part of this trait. The key is this: How much work would a copy editor need to do to prepare the piece for publication?”—Source: random piece of paper @ 2004 from a graduate course that I recently retrieved from the floor of my home-office
My job is all about knowing and enforcing conventions. I strive to be consistent and achieve consistency in all of our written publications. Observing conventions weighs heavily into the next topic, which is Presentation.
I think of the importance of conventions like this. Say you have a $300 business suit. The fit is perfect. You look like a million bucks when you wear it. Your handsomeness knows no bounds. The girls are beside themselves. You are powerful indeed.
Now, instead of hanging your suit up after you’ve worn it, you’ve tossed it in the corner of your bedroom and the cat has spent the night on it. You’re in a hurry the next day, so you quickly brush off the cat hair and put it on.
A little cologne will mask that smell. Nevermind that the suit is terribly wrinkled.
This, my friend, is the value of conventions. Why would you do that? To a beautiful suit? To yourself? To your career? Why would you craft the best piece of writing ever and then not punctuate it correctly, not spell words correctly, use random capital letters willy nilly, or allow bad grammar?
Oh, the horror.