The Elements of Style book review

The earliest edition of The Elements of Style was first set down nearly 100 years ago.

But it’s far from outdated.

In fact, it remains the most brief and practical guide to English writing that’s ever appeared. By far.

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 always ask all the participants who has a copy of The Elements of Style on their desks.

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

Every working writer should refer to this little book often.

Whenever I’m feeling overburdened with corporate-speak, buzzwords, and jargon, remembering the advice of Strunk and White really helps me 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

The book has been criticized some over the years. And some of the critiques have some validity.

For example, there are three main sections, covering the authors’ advice on matters of:

  • Usage
  • Composition
  • 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, we don’t want to make glaring mistakes. But some of the terms we use were only invented a couple of years ago; there’s no way those have found their way into any dictionary yet.

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

Now there’s a charming illustrated version

Now back to the latest incarnation of The Elements of Style: a weirdly effective illustrated edition.

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

But the paintings by Maira Kalman in this edition 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.

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


What do you think of The Elements of Style? Is it over-rated and outdated? Or still a useful little gem? Please leave your comment below. 


About Gordon Graham

Author of 275 white papers on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients everywhere from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, for everyone from tiny startups to 3M, Google and Verizon. Also wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 50 5-star ratings on Amazon. Reviewers call it "a must-read... fantastic... outstanding... terrific... phenomenal... the best book of its kind."

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