Naval Ravikant once said, “I would rather read the best 100 books over and over again until I absorb them rather than read all the books.”
When it comes to writing, ‘Elements of Style’ is widely regarded as one of the greatest books published on the craft of writing. It was named as one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923 in Time Magazine’s ‘All-TIME 100 Nonfiction Books’ list released in 2011.
Even Stephen King, an acclaimed author, in his own book on writing; recommended every aspiring author to read ‘Elements of Style’. But after having read it myself, I would go as further as to say that every serious writer should read it at least once a year.
Despite the book’s short 100 odd page length — it is full of rules writers need to know, uses examples to aid understanding & incorporates nuance in its writing advice. I think I will keep going back to reference it time and again.
As far as book summaries of ‘Elements of Style’ are concerned, they can be no substitute for reading because of the dense nature of the book. That said, I have still tried my hand at making a book summary to help others as well as myself when need calls for a quick reference.
But before you get into the book summary, let me take the time to explain the methodology I followed while creating the summary. As someone, who reads a lot of books, I have come to realize that 90% of the value is usually in 10% of the books, so my summaries, including this one, are highlights of the 10% high on signal, low on noise content of the book.
My ‘Elements of Style’ book summary is divided, just like the book, into five main categories: Elementary Rules of Usage, Elementary Principles of Composition, a few matters of form, Words & Expressions Commonly Misused & an approach to style.
Before you begin reading the book summary, I’d like to let you that the summary is close to 4300 words long and will take you an estimated 22 minutes to read at an average reading speed of 200 words per minute. However, you will most likely have to slow down to absorb the content thoroughly, meaning it might take you even longer to read the summary in its entirety. If you do not have that much time at the moment, feel free to skim through the summary or book this page to revisit later.
‘Elements of Style’ Book Summary
Elementary Rules of Usage
Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.
Example: The best way to see a country, unless you are pressed for time, is to travel on foot.
This rule is difficult to apply; it is frequently hard to decide whether a single word, such as however, or a brief phrase is or is not parenthetic. If the interruption to the flow of the sentence is but slight, the commas may be safely omitted. But whether the interruption is slight or considerable, never omit one comma and leave the other.
There is no defense for such punctuation as Marjories husband, Colonel Nelson paid us a visit yesterday.
Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.
Example: The early records of the city have disappeared, and the story of its first years can no longer be reconstructed.
Two-part sentences of which the second member is introduced by as (in the sense of “because”), for, or, nor, or while (in the sense of “and at the same time”) likewise require a comma before the conjunction.
Do not join independent clauses with 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.
Example: Mary Shelley’s works are entertaining; they are full of engaging ideas.
Example: It is nearly half past five; we cannot reach the town before dark.
It is, of course, equally correct to write each of these as two sentences, replacing the semicolons with periods.
Mary Shelley’s works are entertaining. They are full of engaging ideas.
It is nearly half past five. We cannot reach town before dark.
If a conjunction is inserted, the proper mark is a comma.
Mary Shelley’s works are entertaining, for they are full of engaging ideas.
It is nearly half past five, and we cannot reach town before dark.
A comparison of three forms given above will show clearly the advantage of the first. It is, at least in the examples given, better than the second form because it suggests the close relationship between the two statements in a way that the second does not attempt, and better than the third because it is briefer and therefore more forcible.
An exception to the semicolon rule is worth noting here. A comma is preferable when the clauses are very short and alike in form, or when the tone of the sentence is easy and conversational.
Example: Man proposes, God disposes.
Do not break sentences into two
In other words, do not use periods for commas.
Example: I met them on a Cunard liner many years ago. Coming home from Liverpool to New York.
Example: She was an interesting talker. A woman who had traveled all over the world and lived in half a dozen countries.
In both these examples, the first period should be replaced by a comma and the following word begun by a small latter.
It is permissible to make an emphatic word or expression serve the purpose of a sentence and to punctuate it accordingly.
Example: Again and again he called out. No reply.
Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation.
A colon tells the reader that what follows is closely related to the preceding clause. The colon has more effect than the comma, less power to separate than the semicolon, and more formality than the dash. It usually follows an independent clause and should not separate a verb from its complement or a preposition from its object.
Wrong: Your dedicated whittler requires: a knife, a piece of wood, and a back porch.
Right: Your dedicated whittler requires three props: a knife, a piece of wood, and a back porch.
Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.
A dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses.
Example: His first thought on getting out of bed — if he had any thought at all — was to get back in again.
Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate.
Wrong: Violence — the kind you see on television — is not honestly violent — there lies its harm.
Right: Violence, the kind you see on television, is not honestly violent. There lies its harm.
The number of the subject determines the number of the verb.
Words that intervene between subject and verb do not affect the number of the verb.
Wrong: The bittersweet flavor of youth — its trials, its joys, its adventures, its challenges — are not soon forgotten.
Right: The bittersweet flavor of youth — its trials, its joys, its adventures, its challenges — is not soon forgotten.
A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.
Wrong: Walking slowly down the road, he saw a woman accompanied by two children.
Right: He saw a woman, accompanied by two children, walking slowly down the road.
Participial phrases preceded by a conjunction or by a preposition, nouns in apposition, adjectives, and adjective phrases come under the same rule if they begin the sentence.
Sentences violating this rule are often ludicrous: Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy
Elementary Principles of Composition
Choose a suitable design and hold to it.
A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. In some cases, the best design is no design, as with a love letter, which is simply an outpouring, or with a casual essay, which is a ramble. But in most cases, planning must be a deliberate prelude to writing. The first principle of composition, therefore, is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape.
Make the paragraph the unit of composition.
As long as it holds together, a paragraph may be of any length — a single, short sentence or a passage of great duration.
After the paragraph has been written, examine it to see whether division will improve it. Ordinarily, however, a subject requires division into topics, each of which should be dealt with in a paragraph.
In general, remember that paragraphing calls for a good eye as well as a logical mind. Enormous blocks of print look formidable to readers, who are often reluctant to tackle them. Therefore, breaking long paragraphs in two, even if it is not necessary to do so for sense, meaning, or logical development, is often a visual help. But remember, too, that firing off many short paragraphs in quick succession can be distracting.
Use the Active Voice
The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive: I shall always remember my first visit to Boston. This is much better than My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me. The latter sentence is less direct, less bold, and less concise.
This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.
The dramatists of the Restoration are little esteemed today. Modern readers have little esteem for the dramatists of the Restoration.
The first would be the preferred form in a paragraph on the dramatists of the Restoration, the second in a paragraph on the tastes of modern readers. The need to make a particular word the subject of the sentence will often, as in these examples, determine which voice is to be used. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action but in writing of any kind.
Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.
Example 1: There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.
Example 2: It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had said.
Example 3: The reason he left college was that his health became impaired.
Improved version of example 1: Dead leaves covered the ground.
Improved version of example 2: She soon repented her words.
Improved version of example 3: Failing health compelled him to leave college.
Note, in the examples above, that when a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.
Put statements in positive form
Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.
Wrong: She did not think that studying Latin was a sensible way to use one’s time.
Right: She thought the study of Latin was a waste of time.
Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; the reader wishes to be told what is. Hence, as a rule, it is better to express even negative in a positive form.
– Use trifling instead of non-important
– Use forgot instead of did not remember
– Use ignored instead of did not pay attention
Placing negative and positive in opposition makes for a stronger structure.
Example: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
Negative words other than not are usually strong.
Her loveliness I never knew / Until she smiled on me.
Statements qualified with unnecessary auxiliaries or conditionals sound irresolute.
Irresolute: Applicants can make a good impression by being neat and punctual.
Resolute: Applicants will make a good impression if they are punctual.
If your every sentence admits a doubt, your writing will lack authority. Save the auxiliaries would, should, could, may, might, and can for situations involving certainty.
Use definite, specific, concrete language
Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.
Indefinite: A period of unfavorable weather set in.
Definite: It rained every day for a week.
To show what happens when strong writing is deprived of its vigor, George Orwell once took a passage from the Bible and drained it of its blood. Below is Orwell’s translation; below his translation, the verse from Ecclesiastes (King James Version).
Orwell’s Translation: Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must inevitably be taken into account.
Verse from Ecclesiastes: I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Omit needless words
Vigorous 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. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
For example, instead of: Jane’s idea is a strange one. You can write: Jane’s idea is strange.
Avoid a succession of loose sentences
This rule refers especially to loose sentences of a particular type: those consisting of two clauses, the second introduced by a conjunction or relative. A writer may err by making sentences too compact and periodic. An occasional loose sentence prevents the style from becoming too formal and gives the reader a certain relief. Consequently, loose sentences are common in easy, unstudied writing. The danger is that there may be too many of them.
Keep related words together
The position of the words in a sentence is the principal means of showing their relationship. Confusion and ambiguity result when words are badly placed. The writer must, therefore, bring together the words and groups of words that are related in thought and keep apart those that are not so related.
Statement: He noticed a large stain in the rug that was right in the center.
Revised Statement: He noticed a large stain right in the center of the rug.
In the first version of the example, the reader has no way of knowing whether the stain was in the center of the rug or the rug was in the center of the room.
Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.
The proper place in the sentence for the word or group of words that the writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end.
Statement: Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways.
Revised Statement: Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.
The other prominent position in the sentence is the beginning. Any element in the sentence other than the subject becomes emphatic when placed first.
Example: Deceit or treachery she could never forgive.
The other prominent position in the sentence is the beginning. Any element in the sentence other than the subject becomes emphatic when placed first. Deceit or treachery she could never forgive.
A Few Matters of Form
If you use a colloquialism or a slang word or phrase, simply use it; do not draw attention to it by enclosing it in quotation marks. To do so is to put on airs, as though you were inviting the reader to join you in a select society of those who know better.
Do not attempt to emphasize simple statements by using a mark of exclamation.
Wrong: It was a wonderful show!
Right: It was a wonderful show.
The exclamation mark is to be reserved for use after true exclamations or commands.
What a wonderful show! Halt!
When two or more words are combined to form a compound adjective, a hyphen is usually required.
Example 1: “He belonged to the leisure class and enjoyed leisure-class pursuits.”
Example 2: “She entered her boat in the round-the-island race.”
Do not use a hyphen between words that can better be written as one word: water-fowl, waterfowl.
Common sense will aid you in the decision, but a dictionary is more reliable.
A sentence containing an expression in parentheses is punctuated outside the last mark of parenthesis exactly as if the parenthetical expression were absent.
Example 1: I went to her house yesterday (my third attempt to see her), but she had left town.
Example 2: He declares (and why should we doubt his good faith?) that he is now certain of success.
The expression within the marks is punctuated as if it stood by itself, except that the final stop is omitted unless it is a question mark or an exclamation point.
(When a wholly detached expression or sentence is parenthesized, the final stop comes before the last mark of parenthesis.)
Formal quotations cited as documentary evidence are introduced by a colon and enclosed in quotation marks. The United States Coast Pilot has this to say of the place: “Bracy Cove, 0.5 mile eastward of Bear Island, is exposed to southeast winds, has a rocky and uneven bottom, and is unfit for anchorage.”
A quotation grammatically in apposition or the direct object of a verb is preceded by a comma and enclosed in quotation marks.
Example: I am reminded of the advice of my neighbor, “Never worry about your heart till it stops beating.”
Example: Mark Twain says, “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”
When a quotation is followed by an attributive phrase, the comma is enclosed within the quotation marks.
Example: “I can’t attend,” she said.
Words & Expressions Commonly Misused
MANY of the words and expressions listed below are not so much bad English as bad style, the commonplaces of careless writing.
The words are not always interchangeable as nouns or adjectives. The first means every other one in a series; the second, one of two possibilities.
When more than two things or persons are involved, among is usually called for: “The money was divided among the four players.” When, however, more than two are involved but each is considered individually, between is preferred: “an agreement between the six heirs.”
In the sense of “any person,” not to be written as two words. Any body means “any corpse,” or “any human form,” or “any group.” The rule holds equally for everybody, nobody, and somebody. Anyone. In the sense of “anybody,” written as one word. Any one means “any single person” or “any single thing.”
Example 1: In many cases, the rooms lacked air conditioning.
Example 2: It has rarely been the case that any mistake has been made.
Improved version of example 1: Many of the rooms lacked air conditioning.
Improved version of example 2: Few mistakes have been made.
Used indiscriminately by some speakers, much as others use very, in an attempt to intensify any and every statement. A mannerism of this kind, bad in speech, is even worse in writing.
As a transitive verb, the word is vague and self-important. Do not contact people; get in touch with them, look them up, phone them, find them, or meet them.
In the sense of now with a verb in the present tense, currently is usually redundant; emphasis is better achieved through a more precise reference to time. We are currently reviewing your application. We are at this moment reviewing your application.
Loosely used for through, because of, or owing to, in adverbial phrases.
Example: He lost the first game due to carelessness.
Improved version of example: He lost the first game because of carelessness.
In correct use, synonymous with attributable to: “The accident was due to bad weather”; “losses due to preventable fires.”
As a noun, means “result”; as a verb, means “to bring about,” “to accomplish” (not to be confused with affect, which means “to influence”). As a noun, often loosely used in perfunctory writing about fashions, music, painting, and other arts: “a Southwestern effect”; “effects in pale green”; “very delicate effects”; “subtle effects”; “a charming effect was produced.” The writer who has a definite meaning to express will not take refuge in such vagueness.
Literally, “and other things”; sometimes loosely used to mean “and other persons.” The phrase is equivalent to and the rest, and so forth, and hence is not to be used if one of these would be insufficient — that is, if the reader would be left in doubt as to any important particulars. Least open to objection when it represents the last terms of a list already given almost in full, or immaterial words at the end of a quotation. At the end of a list introduced by such as, for example, or any similar expression, etc. is incorrect. In formal writing, etc. is a misfit. An item important enough to call for etc. is probably important enough to be named.
Use this word only of matters capable of direct verification, not of matters of judgment. That a particular event happened on a given date and that lead melts at a certain temperature are facts. But such conclusions as that Napoleon was the greatest of modern generals or that the climate of California is delightful, however defensible they may be, are not properly called facts.
A hackneyed word; the expressions of which it is a part can usually be replaced by something more direct and idiomatic.
Example 1: Her superior training was the great factor in her winning the match.
Example 2:Air power is becoming an increasingly important factor in deciding battles.
Improved version of example 1:She won the match by being better trained.
Improved version of example 2: Air power is playing a larger and larger part in deciding battles.
The two words are commonly interchanged, but there is a distinction worth observing: farther serves best as a distance word, further as a time or quantity word. You chase a ball farther than the other fellow; you pursue a subject further.
Another hackneyed word; like factor, it usually adds nothing to the sentence in which it occurs. A feature of the entertainment especially worthy of mention was the singing of Allison Jones. (Better use the same number of words to tell what Allison Jones sang and how she sang it.)
Not interchangeable. Something implied is something suggested or indicated, though not expressed. Something inferred is something deduced from evidence at hand. Farming implies early rising. Since she was a farmer, we inferred that she got up early.
The word is a suspicious overstatement for “perceptive.” If it is to be used at all, it should be used for instances of remarkably penetrating vision. Usually, it crops up merely to inflate the commonplace.
An unconvincing word; avoid it as a means of introduction. Instead of announcing that what you are about to tell is interesting, make it so.
Should be regardless. The error results from failure to see the negative in less and from a desire to get it in as a prefix, suggested by such words as irregular, irresponsible, and, perhaps especially, irrespective.
Less refers to quantity, fewer to number. “His troubles are less than mine” means “His troubles are not so great as mine.” “His troubles are fewer than mine” means “His troubles are not so numerous as mine.”
A shaggy, all-purpose word, to be used sparingly in formal composition. “I had a nice time.” “It was nice weather.” “She was so nice to her mother.” The meanings are indistinct. Nice is most useful in the sense of “precise” or “delicate”: “a nice distinction.”
Example: Personally, I thought it was a good book.
Improved version of example: I thought it a good book.
Use this word sparingly. Where emphasis is necessary, use words strong in themselves.
An Approach to Style
Young writers often suppose that style is a garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity; it is nondetachable, unfilterable. The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is an expression of self, and should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style — all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.
Place yourself in the background
Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed and not at the expense of the work. Therefore, the first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none — that is, place yourself in the background.
Write in a way that comes naturally
Write in a way that comes easily and naturally to you, using words and phrases that come readily to hand. But do not assume that because you have acted naturally your product is without flaw.
Write with nouns and verbs
Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech. Occasionally they surprise us with their power, as in
Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy glen, We daren’t go a-hunting For fear of little men …
The nouns mountain and glenare accurate enough, but had the mountain not become airy, the glen rushy, William Ailing-ham might never have got off the ground with his poem. In general, however, it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color.
Revise & Rewrite
Revising is part of writing. Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers.
Do not overwrite
When writing with a computer, you must guard against wordiness. The click and flow of a word processor can be seductive, and you may find yourself adding a few unnecessary words or even a whole passage just to experience the pleasure of running your fingers over the keyboard and watching your words appear on the screen. It is always a good idea to reread your writing later and ruthlessly delete the excess.
Do not overstate
When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment or your poise.
Avoid the use of qualifiers
Rather, very, little, pretty — these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words. The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one, and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then.
Avoid Fancy Words
Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twentydollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.
Use figures of speech sparingly
The simile is a common device and a useful one, but similes coming in rapid fire, one right on top of another, are more distracting than illuminating. Readers need time to catch their breath; they can’t be expected to compare everything with something else, and no relief in sight. When you use metaphor, do not mix it up. That is, don’t start by calling something a swordfish and end by calling it an hourglass.
Many references have been made in this book to “the reader,” who has been much in the news. It is now necessary to warn you that your concern for the reader must be pure: you must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader’s wants. Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one.