The Elements of Style

The Elements of Style refers to prescriptive guidelines about how to avoid error and write well. Since the publication of William Strunk's The Elements of Style in 1918, writers have been exhorted to practice brevity, clarity, flow, simplicity, unity.  Other conventions of style include grammar, mechanics, modifiers, modification, parallelism, and parallel structure, Additionally, now that the writing space has taken such a visual and multimodal turn, writers, speakers, knowledge workers need some Design Elements, Graphic Design, Page Design, and Universal Design principles

Webb Space Telescope image of Quasars taken about 700 million years after the big bang. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)

What are The Elements of Style?

The Elements of Style refers to

  1. the title of a popular book on grammar, punctuation, mechanics, and style authored initially by William Strunk: The Elements of Style (1918)
  2. prescriptive guidelines about how to avoid error and write well. Commonplace examples:
    • The Elements of Style

      Strunk & White (1920)
  3. discourse elements, linguistic patterns, grammatical constructions, and rhetorical moves that characterize and distinguish a writer’s prose style
  4. a critical framework, a set of discourse conventions and practices that informs the interpretative practices and composing practices of particular knowledge workers and discourse communities

  5. (e.g., knowledge workers in the workplace.
    • Literacy is defined by information literacy practices
  6. the various elements of discourse a writer employs and the appropriateness of those elements given the rhetorical situation.

Related Concepts: Grammar; RegisterRhetorical AnalysisRhetoricRhetorical Reasoning StyleToneVoice.


Elements of Style Book

In 1918, when William Strunk’s first self published The Elements of Style, he aimed to concisely summarize the basic rules (aka foundational knowledge) writers needed to follow in their prose style in order to write well. Strunk prized simplicity and clarity. He conceptualized the elements of style to be composed of a few elementary rules of usage and composition, a few matters of form, and some misspelled words and misused expressions:

Contents, The Elements of Style (Strunk 1918)

Elements of Style PDF

Elements of Style in Contemporary Writing

Brevity, Clarity, Flow, Simplicity, Unity–these five elements of style remain critical for writers to consider when drafting, composing, writing, revising or editing their works.

And yet a lot of things have changed in the past century. Consider, as an example, recent changes to pronoun usage:

Or the societal move toward information empathy and audience awareness:

The internet and modern communication technologies create new opportunities for writers. The writing space is now more visual and multimodal. Especially in professional writing contexts, writers, speakers, knowledge workers are expected to break up long chunks of alphabetical discourse by using shorter paragraphs, less punctuation, headings, bullets, lists, data visualizations, and infographics. In some situations, they may integrate videos and audio files into their emails, letters, memos, and other texts.

As a result, the elements of style may now include tools from the artist’s toolset. Thus they may need declarative knowledge about

Works Cited

Strunk, W. (1918). The elements of style. OCLC 781988921

Strunk, W., In White, E. B., White, E. B., & White, E. B. (1957). The elements of style (3rd edition). New York: Macmillan. OCLC 878906498.

Williams, Joseph and Joseph Bizup (2016). Style: lessons in clarity and grace, 12th Edition. Pearson Education. ISBN-13: 978-0134080413

Zinsser, W. (2006). On writing well (30th ed.). HarperCollins.