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Book review: The Elements of Style

The earliest edition of The Elements of Style was set down more than 100 years ago in 1919.

But it’s far from outdated.

In fact, The Elements of Style remains the single most brief and practical guide to English writing that’s ever appeared. By far.

The Elements of Style book cover

Whether you write B2B, B2C, mysteries, or even the text on cereal boxes, you just can’t find more pithy advice on writing anywhere.

Whenever I give a writing workshop, I ask who has a copy of The Elements of Style on their desks.

A flurry of hands go up. To any writer who doesn’t raise their hand, I say, “Why not? Go get a copy right now!”

Every working writer should haver a copy of this little book and refer to it often.


Whenever I’m feeling overburdened by buzzwords, corporate speak, and jargon, I remember the advice of Strunk and White. That helps me fight to keep my sentences more crisp, clear, and concise.

For less than $10 and under 100 pages, nothing else can touch this little guide as a writing advisor and companion.

Prescriptivist vs descriptivist

This book is not without its critics, and some have a point.

For example, there are three main sections, covering the authors’ advice on matters of usage, composition, and style.

Honestly, I tend to ignore the section on usage, which is decidedly prescriptivist (based on stern rules of what makes for proper grammar).

My style tends to be more descriptivist, using newer terms or constructions that may not be accepted by every grammarian.

After all, anyone who writes about tech has to stay flexible.

Of course, I don’t want to make glaring mistakes.

But some of the terms I need to use were only invented a couple of years ago; there’s no way those have found their way into any dictionary yet.

For more about this ongoing debate, here’s an article from The New York Times.

Now there’s a charming illustrated version

The latest version of The Elements of Style is a weirdly effective illustrated edition.

The Elements of Style Illustrated book cover

I never imagined anyone would create whimsical paintings to depict concepts in English style.

But the paintings by Maira Kalman are truly amazing.

She depicts everything from “sentence fragment” to “overly, muchly, thusly.”

Those graphics keep me coming back to this edition to sneak another peek.

If you’re interested in a new look at an old classic, check out The Elements of Style Illustrated.



Watch the online discussion

I feel so passionate about this little book that I led an online discussion about it in the AWAI Great Book series in 2015.

I know, I know. That’s a few years ago.

But nothing about clear writing has gone out of date in those years.

You can watch the discussion here, including my slides and the Q&A.

Happy writing!


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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 320+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 60+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. Named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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