The Elements of Style turns 50. If you're celebrating, make sure to use the active voice

Dennis Baron debaron at ILLINOIS.EDU
Fri Apr 3 05:03:00 UTC 2009

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The Elements of Style turns 50. If you're celebrating, make sure to  
use the active voice

April, 2009, is the 50th anniversary of the publication of The  
Elements of Style, a book first written and published privately in  
1918 by William Strunk for his composition students at Cornell, but  
revised and reintroduced to the world by E. B. White half a century ago.

White took English 8 from Strunk in 1919. He then forgot about his  
freshman composition course, and its textbook, until 1957, when a  
friend sent him a copy of The Elements of Style that he had stolen  
from the Cornell library. White wrote about the purloined book in the  
New Yorker (“Letter from the East,” July 27, 1957, pp. 35-36; 41- 45),  
but he apparently didn’t return it to Cornell. Instead, he revised it  
(Strunk had died in 1946), added an introductory essay, and  
republished The Elements of Style in 1959. It immediately became a  
best-seller, and its four editions have sold millions of copies.

No one can really shrink the rules for writers down to an easily- 
swallowed pill, a 43-page essay, or even a long, rambling tome, and  
hope to be successful, because writing doesn’t respond well to  
formulas, and no set of rules can anticipate the situations writers  
have to deal with daily. But true to the spirit of brevity that  
writing teachers often extol, Strunk’s Rule 13 states, “Omit needless  
words,” and that’s pretty much what he did: Strunk only wrote one  
other book, a 73-page study of English meter. . . .

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Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321

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