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An Illustrated Introduction to The Elements of Style

Christopher Holmes

18 July 2001


Christopher Holmes covered the 11 elementary rules of usage and 11 elementary principles of composition in the classic stylebook by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White widely used in high school and college writing classes in the United States.

Following is an outline of the presentation.

What is The Elements of Style?

Rules for (self-)editing

Rules are tools

Beneficiaries

What is in gThe Elementsh?

  • 22 rules,
    etc.
  • Our program today

    The first two parts

    Why punctuation?

    Why grammar?

    What is composition?

    Rules of punctuation (Rules 1-8)

    1. Form the possessive singular of nouns with 's.
    2. In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.
    3. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.
    4. Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.
    5. Do not join independent clauses by a comma.
    6. Do not break sentences in two.
    7. Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation.
    8. Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.

    Rule 1: Form the possessive singular of nouns with 's.

    Follow this rule whatever the final consonant.

    Chrisfs talk will not be long.

    The witchfs brew is delicious!

    Rule 2: In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.
    (The conjunction is usually "and" or "or.")

    Chrisfs talk will be concise, elegant, and entertaining.

    The witchfs brew is a delicate blend of grated ginger, lemon peels, soft clover sprouts, and toadsf eyes. (Instead of the soft clover sprouts, you can also use cabbage leaves, soggy newsprint, mud scraped from your boots, or toothpaste.)

    The real need for this rule arises when the terms in the series are clauses in a sentence, many of the clauses are themselves extremely long, the parts are individually hard to understand, sometimes composed in turn of smaller parts, some of which are parenthetic expressions separated by commas and other marks of punctuation, and the reader critically needs consistent guides to the writerfs intent.

    Rule 3: Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.

    This rule, if you know what a parenthetic expression is, is easy to follow.

    Rule 3: Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas (unless the parenthetic expression begins the sentence):

    If you know what parentheses are (you do know that, donft you?), you know what a parenthetic expression is.

    Parenthetic expressions are nonrestrictive clauses.
    A sentence with a nonrestrictive clause can be divided into two or more sentences without changing the meaning:

    A sentence with a nonrestrictive clause can be divided into two or more sentences without changing the meaning:

    Compare with

    Rule 4: Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.

    You need to know what an independent clause is, and you need to know what a conjunction is. (You need to know what an independent clause is and what a conjunction is.)

    An independent clause is a grammatically complete part of a sentence, and a conjunction is a joining word like gandh or gbuth.

    Exception to Rule 3 when applying Rule 4

    You need to know what an independent clause is and what a conjunction is, but if you know already, we can go on to the next point.

    Rule 5: Do not join independent clauses by a comma.

    Do not do it. It is wrong.

    Do not do it; it is wrong.

    Do not do it, because it is wrong.

    Exception to Rule 5 for very short clauses that are alike in form:

    Man proposes, God disposes.

    Here today, gone tomorrow.

    Rule 6: Do not break sentences in two.
    In other words, do not use periods for commas.

    Do not write like Hemmingway. Unless you are writing dialogue. And you want to sound like a second Hemmingway. Or like a copywriter.

    Rule 7: Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation.

    Further illustrations of Rule 7
    (Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation.)

    Rule 8: Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.

    Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation (a comma, for example, or a period or parentheses) seems inadequate ? and remember that a dash is not the same thing as a hyphen: a dash separates, a hyphen joins words.

    Grammar: three rules most commonly violated

    Rule 9: The number of the subject determines the number of the verb.

    Nothing intervening between the subject and the verb -- even nouns connected to the subject by with, together with, in addition to, as well as, no less than, and except -- affects the number of the verb.

    Rule 10: Use the proper case of pronoun.

    Rule 11: A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.

    Rule 11, continued: Participial phrases preceded by a conjunction or by a preposition, nouns in apposition, adjectives, and adjective phrases must also refer to the grammatical subject if they begin the sentence.

    Composition:

    Rule 12: Choose a suitable design and hold to it.

    This rule reminds scientists that they should make an outline before they begin: furthermore, they should avoid mixing fact and wishful thinking and keep the original purposes of their study always firmly in mind when reporting their findings.

    Rule 13: Make the paragraph the unit of composition.

    Each paragraph should have one main idea. A new paragraph often begins with a gtopic sentenceh announcing or summarizing the paragraphfs main message or providing transition from the previous paragraph. Though paragraphs may be of any length, from a single short sentence to a whole page, no paragraph should require rereading to be intelligible.

    Rule 14: Use the active voice.

    Use the passive voice only for a good reason, such as to put more emphasis on the action than on the actor. gThe passive voice is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary,h but do not use the passive to increase ambiguity or obscurity. Remember that sentences in the active voice are easier both to write and to understand.

    Rule 15: Put statements in positive form.

    Think positive. Make definite assertions. Tell the reader what you think, not what you doubt.

    Rule 16: Use definite, specific, concrete language.

    Donft be lazy. Donft make the reader do all the work. If necessary to clarify your meaning, specify referents and repeat and expand previous statements.

    Rule 17: Omit needless words.

    gVigorous 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.

    Rule 17, continued

    gThis requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.h
    William Strunk Jr.

    Rule 18: Avoid a succession of loose sentences.

    Avoid both all-purpose conjunctions like gandh and ambiguous conjunctions like gas,h gsince,h and gwhile.h Use specific conjunctions like gbecauseh and gbecause ofh and relative pronouns that clearly express the real relations of the thought. Donft use gmoreoverh or gfurthermoreh at all. Learn how to use galsoh and gas well.h

    Bad writing violating Rule 18 (and several other rules):

    As Ifve got a lot to say, and since I donft have a lot of time, Ifm going to start by skipping over some parts of my presentation that are not so important, which I donft think will cause any problem. If you have any questions, just raise your hand, while Ifm talking, since you might have a question, while it would waste time to come back to it later.

    Application of Rule 18

    Because we have much to cover but little time, Ifll omit some non-essential parts of my presentation. I donft think the omissions will cause any problem, but to save time, interrupt me as soon as you have any questions.

    Rule 19: Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form.

    First, learn how writers normally express their ideas. Then, imitate what you see. Finally, when you reach the stage where you can improvise, youfre your own master.

    Rule 20: Keep related words together.

    Keeping related words together is often difficult in English; some expressions require that you separate prepositions, as in gWhat are you talking about?h

    The point is to rewrite sentences and to move related words closer together whenever their separation causes ambiguity or confusion.

    Rule 21: In summaries, keep to one tense.

    Describing the method used in a study in the past tense may suggest mistakenly to the reader that what was done then is no longer done now. To avoid this, use the present tense.

    Rule 22: Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

    This rule illustrates itself.

    gThe proper place in the sentence for the word or group of words that the writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end.h

    gThe other prominent position in the sentence is the beginning.h

    This principle gapplies equally to the words of a sentence, to the sentences of a paragraph, and to the paragraphs of a composition.h

    And thatfs the end!


    As always, the presentation was followed by a nice dinner.


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