The Elements of Style

William Strunk
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The gold standard for proper grammar and punctuation. Favourite rule: "Omit needless words."

Rules of Usage

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

  • Charles's friend, Burns's poems, the witch's malice, the Beatlesโ€™s concert tour

2. In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.

  • He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents.

3. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.

  • He saw us coming, and unaware that we had learned of his treachery, greeted us with a smile.

4. Place a comma before and or but introducing an independent clause.

  • The early records of the city have disappeared, and the story of its first years can no longer be reconstructed. The situation is perilous, but there is still one chance of escape.

5. Do not join independent clauses by a comma.

  • If two or more clauses, grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction, are to form a single compound sentence, the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon.
  • Stevenson's romances are entertaining; they are full of exciting adventures.

6. Do not break sentences in two.

  • I met them on a cruise several years ago. Coming home from Liverpool to New York. (bad)
  • I met them on a cruise several years ago, coming home from Liverpool to New York. (good)

7. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.

  • Walking slowly down the road, he saw a woman accompanied by two children. (bad)
  • The word walking refers to the subject of the sentence, not to the woman. If the writer wishes to make it refer to the woman, he must recast the sentence:
  • He saw a woman, accompanied by two children, walking slowly down the road. (good)

8. Divide words at line-ends, in accordance with their formation and pronunciation.

Principles of Composition

9. Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic.

  • After the paragraph has been written, it should be examined to see whether subdivision will not improve it.

10. As a rule, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence; end it in conformity with the beginning.

  • The topic sentence comes at or near the beginning
  • The succeeding sentences explain or establish or develop the statement made in the topic sentence
  • The final sentence either emphasises the thought of the topic sentence or states some important consequence.

11. Use the active voice.

  • A survey of this region was made in 1900. > This region was surveyed in 1900.
  • Confirmation of these reports cannot be obtained. > These reports cannot be confirmed.

12. Put statements in positive form.

  • Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colourless, hesitating, non-committal language.
  • He did not think that studying Latin was much use. > He thought the study of Latin useless.

13. Omit needless words.

  • Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences,
  • In a hasty manner > hastily
  • This is a subject which > this subject

14. Avoid a succession of loose sentences.

  • An unskilled writer will sometimes construct a whole paragraph of sentences using connectives and, but, and less frequently, who, which, when, where, and while, these last in non-restrictive senses.

15. Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form.

  • Formerly, science was taught by the textbook method, while now the laboratory method is employed. > Formerly, science was taught by the textbook method; now it is taught by the laboratory method.
  • The left-hand version gives the impression that the writer is undecided or timid; he seems unable or afraid to choose one form of expression and hold to it. The right-hand version shows that the writer has at least made his choice and abided by it.

16. Keep related words together.

  • The subject of a sentence and the principal verb should not, as a rule, be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning.
  • Cast iron, when treated in a Bessemer converter, is changed into steel. > By treatment in a Bessemer converter, cast iron is changed into steel.

17. In summaries, keep to one tense.

  • In summarising the action of a drama, the writer should always use the present tense. In summarising a poem, story, or novel, he should preferably use the present, though he may use the past if he prefers.

18. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

  • This steel is principally used for making razors, because of its hardness. > Because of its hardness, this steel is principally used in making razors.

Words and Expressions Commonly Misused


  • In many cases, the rooms were poorly ventilated. > Many of the rooms were poorly ventilated.


  • Should not be misused for fewer. He had less men than in the previous campaign. > He had fewer men than in the previous campaign.

Literal, literally.

  • Literally dead with fatigue > Almost dead with fatigue (dead tired)


  • The office and salesrooms are on the ground floor, while the rest of the building is devoted to manufacturing. > The office and salesrooms are on the ground floor; the rest of the building is devoted to manufacturing.