The Elements Of Style

"Young Woman Writing" by Pierre Bonnard (1908)

"Young Woman Writing" by Pierre Bonnard (1908)

I couldn't do anything today, so I decided to read. I wanted to read about writing, because I want to write well. So I read this book on my MacBook in one sitting from 3 to 6 p.m. As I was close to completing it, my sister mandated me to take a break, so we could feed some stray cats downstairs outside our apartment building. I took many pictures. After that was a brisk walk, observing greeneries and the cloudy sky, and Mulberry trees that belong to my mother. After a shower and blended dinner – due to my current conditions, I was back in my room to finish the last 8 pages of this pocket rulebook at 9.

Was this paragraph written well? Did it contain any unnecessary words or sentences? Like a drawing with no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts?

Did I adhere to the following principles exhorted in the book?

  • write in a way that comes naturally
  • revise and rewrite
  • do not explain too much
  • be clear

I am uncertain.

Writing is hard. It's an awkward process of trying to find the right words, and blaming yourself when you can't get the fit the puzzle pieces right, and you wonder if the pieces even belong in the puzzle.

Reading this book made me question whether I know English at all. Maybe I learned English from consuming a lot of text and audio input, like an LLM, and I'm regurgitating them out when I'm prompted for an output. Or maybe I internalized the fundamental rules when I was learning English as a kid, and when I apply them they feel second nature. I don't consciously check whether my participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence referred to the grammatical subject, or if I used the proper case of pronoun. If it sounds right in my head, I keep it. If not, I rewrite. That's how I write.

Some notes from the book.

I: Elementary Rules of Usage.

This part gave me flashbacks to english classes in high school and college.

Some reminders and takeaways

  • The colon has more effect than the comma, less power to separate than the semicolon, and more formality than the dash
  • A dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses
  • who or whom?
    • if you answer with HE, use who (asking about subject)
      • He is the candidate who we think will win (we think HE will win)
    • if you answer with HIM, use whom (asking about object)
      • "He is the candidate whom we hope to elect (we hope to elect HIM)

II: Principles of composition

  • Choose a suitable design and hold to it
    • planning must be a deliberate prelude to writing. foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape
    • most forms of compositions are less clearly defined, more flexible, but all have skeletons to which the writer will bring the flesh and the blood. The more clearly the writer perceives the shape, the better the chances of success.
  • Make the paragraph the unit of composition
    • 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
    • Moderation and sense of order should be the main consideration in paragraphing
  • Use the active voice
    • ex: "The reason he left college was that his health became impaired" -> "Failing health compelled him to leave college"
    • habitual use of the active voice makes for forcible writing.
    • brevity is a by-product of vigor
  • Put statements in the 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.
    • The reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; the reader wishes to be told what is. Hence, it is better to express even a negative in positive
      • "not honest" -> "dishonest"
      • "not important" -> "trifling"
      • "did not pay any attention to" -> "ignored"
    • Save the auxiliaries would, should, could, may, might, and can for situations involving real uncertainty.
      • can/would -> will
      • may be among -> was a
  • use definite, specific, concrete language
    • specific > general, definite > vague, concrete > abstract
    • The greatest writers – Homer, Dante, Shakespeare – are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.
    • "a period of unfavorable weather set in" -> "it rained every day for a week"
  • omit needless words
    • he is a man who -> he
    • this is a subject that -> this subject
    • The fact that should be revised out of every sentence
    • Who is, which was, and the like are often superfluous
  • avoid a succession of loose sentences
    • using connectives and, but, who, which, when, where, and while in nonrestrictive senses (extra info in a sentence that can be removed without changing the core meaning of the sentence)
    • a writer who has written a series of loose sentences should recast them to remove the monotony, replacing them with:
      • simple sentences
      • sentences of two clauses joined by a semicolon
      • periodic sentences of two clauses
      • sentences (loose or periodic) of three clauses
  • Express coordinate ideas in similar form
    • The Beatitudes exemplify the virtue of parallel construction
      • Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
      • Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
      • Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
      • Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. The unskilled writer of
  • Keep related words together
    • positions of words in a sentence is the principal means of showing their relationship. Confusion and ambiguity result when words are badly placed
      • "He noticed a large stain in the rug that was right in the center" -> "He noticed a large stain right in the center of the rug"
    • modifiers should come next to the words they modify
      • "All the members were not present" vs "Not all the members were present"
  • place emphatic words of a sentence at the end
    • "At the end of the day, tired and weary, we saw the beautiful sunset." vs "Tired and weary, we saw the beautiful sunset at the end of the day."
    • the other prominent position is the beginning: "Deceit or treachery she could never forgive"

IV: Words and Expressions commonly misused

  • Do not confuse with elude. You allude to a book; you elude a pursuer
  • To compare to is to point out resemblances between different objects; to compare with is to point out differences between similar objects
  • Disinterested means "impartial", do not confuse it with uninterested
  • "combustible" is inflammable
  • In terms of: a piece of padding usually best omitted
  • Less should not be misused for fewer, less refers to quantity, fewer to number.
  • Like has been long widely misused by the illiterate
  • One of the most: avoid this feeble formula
  • shall for the first person, will for the second and third.
  • So. Avoid in writing, the use of so as an intensifier.
  • That is defining, which is nondefining or adds information

V: An approach to style

This was my favorite part of the book. A lot of useful insights that I want to apply and remind myself while I write.

What is style?

  • Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? Who knows why certain notes in music are capable of stirring the listener deeply, though the same notes slightly rearranged are impotent?
  • There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course. Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion
  • Style in an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzgerald's style, we don't mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. All writers, by the way they use the language, reveal something of their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation – it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito.
  • Style not only reveals the spirit of the man but reveals his identity, as surely as would his fingerprints

Stye is not a garnish

  • 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.

Writing is slow

  • the mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by.
  • A writer is a gunner, sometimes waiting in the blind for something to come in, sometimes roaming the countryside hoping to scare something up. Like other gunners, the writer must cultivate patience, working many covers to bring down one partridge

A list of suggestions and cautionary hints to help you find the way to a satisfactory style.

  • 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.
    • The act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.
  • Write in a way that comes naturally
    • use words and phrases that come readily to hand
    • The use of language begins with imitation. Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator; take pains instead to admire what is good.
  • Work from a suitable design
    • Designs informs even the simplest structure, whether of brick and steel or of prose.
    • even the kind of writing that is essentially adventurous and impetuous will on examination be found to have a secret plan. Columbus didn't just sail, he sailed west.
  • Write with nouns and verbs
    • not with adjectives and adverbs, occasionally they surprise us with their power, but it's nouns and verbs, not their assistants that give good writing its toughness and color
  • Revise and rewrite
    • quite often you will discover serious flaws in the arrangement of the material of your work, calling for transposition. This is no sign of weakness or defeat, it is a common occurrence in all writing.
  • Do not overwrite
    • Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.
    • guard against wordiness, the click and flow of a word processor can be seductive, you may find yourself adding unnecessary words just to experience the pleasure of running your fingers over the keyboard and watching words appear on the screen.
    • it is always a good idea to reread your writing later and ruthlessly delete the excess
  • Do not overstate
    • overstate and readers will lose confidence in your judgement or your poise
  • Avoid the use of qualifiers
    • rather, very, little, pretty – these are leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words
  • Do not affect a breezy manner
    • the breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day
  • Use orthodox spelling
    • he reads the form though automatically, without thought of its needless complexity; he reads the abbreviation tho and mentally supplies the missing letters, at teh cost of a fraction of his attention. The writer has defeated his own purpose.
  • do not explain too much
    • be sparing in the use of adverbs: "he said consolingly," "she replied grumblingly," Let the conversation itself disclose the speaker's manner or condition
  • Do not construct awkward adverbs
    • Do not dress words up by adding -ly to them, as though putting a hat on a horse ("overly" -> "over")
    • "tiredly" -> "wearily"
  • make sure the reader knows who is speaking
    • The best test for locating an attributive is to speak the sentence aloud
  • avoid fancy words
    • do not be tempted by a $20 dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able
    • A matter of ear, a matter of reading the books that sharpen the ear.
    • The question of ear is vital. Only the writer whose ear is reliable is in a position to use bad grammar deliberately
  • Be clear
    • since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue. And although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one.
    • Usually what is wrong is that the construction has become too involved at some point; the sentence needs to be broken apart and replaced by two or more shorter sentences
    • Think of the tragedies rooted in ambiguity, and be clear! When you say something, make sure you have said it.
  • Do not inject opinion
    • unless there is a good reason for its presence, do not insert opinion into a piece of writing. We all have opinions about almost everything, and the temptation to toss them in is great.
    • Opinions scattered indiscriminately about leave the mark of egotism on a work
  • Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity
    • Many shortcuts are self-defeating; they waste the reader's time instead of conserving it
    • The longest way round is usually the shortest way home. The only true reliable shortcut in writing is to choose words that are strong and surefooted to carry readers on their way
  • Prefer the standard to the offbeat
    • Young writers will be drawn at every turn toward eccentricities in language; the problem for beginners is to listen to them, learn the words, feel the vibrations, and not be carried away.
    • To use the language well, do not begin by hacking it to bits; accept the whole body of it, cherish its classic form, its variety, and its richness.
    • "writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar"
    • No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader's intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing.
    • Your concern for the reader must be pure: you must sympathize with the reader's plight, 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. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you're as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.