Strunk, White & Kalman

The Elements of Style (Illustrated)

“Omit needless words.”

If any book needs illustrative accompaniment in the form of incisive, whimsical, instructive drawings, it would be a writing and grammar guide. How unbearably boring they are.

Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, uncharacteristically interesting as far as writing guides go, is stunningly improved with the visuals of illustrator and author Maira Kalman.1

the elements of style
“A few matters of form.” Illustration by Maira Kalman.

With her unique ability to capture a visual that rejects realities of both space and color, Kalman delivers something so wonderfully curious. She invites us to peer deeper for understanding (and thus solidifying the rules).

Comprise.

Literally, “embrace”: A zoo comprises mammals, reptiles, and birds (because it “embraces” or includes them). But animals do not comprise (“embrace”) a zoo—they constitute a zoo.

Illustration by Maira Kalman featured in "The Elements of Style (Illustrated)" in The Examined Life Library.
“But animals do not comprise (“embrace”) zoo – they constitute a zoo.” Illustration by Maira Kalman.

The collaboration between William Strunk and E. B. White that produced the first edition of The Elements of Style in 1920 was not so much a collaboration as it was a student (White) taking over his mentor’s (Strunk) slim work and turning it into the most beloved writing guide ever published.

Now in its fourth edition, The Elements of Style has been updated to include female examples in hitherto male-only professions and less about the etiquette letter-writing (etiquette for email and DMs, thankfully, are not yet referenced).

The most prominent and memorable advice, however, remains true.

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.

I love the analogy of a machine with unnecessary parts, a bicycle with a third pedal, for example. Can you imagine such a thing? Yet we hoard needless words all the time.1

Choose a suitable design and hold to it.

A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. Writers will in part follow this design, in part deviate from it, according to their skills, their needs, and the unexpected events that accompany the act of composition. Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.

Illustration by Maira Kalman featured in "The Elements of Style (Illustrated)" in The Examined Life Library.
“A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing.” Illustration by Maira Kalman.

The best section of The Elements of Style is “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused,” which includes “commonplaces of careless writing.”

Being.

Not appropriate after regard . . . as. He is regarded as the best dancer in the club.

Illustration by Maira Kalman featured in "The Elements of Style (Illustrated)" in The Examined Life Library.
“He is regarded as the best dancer in the club.” Illustration by Maira Kalman.

Doubtlessly helpful. And there is this definition I wish more people would heed.

Fact.

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 are 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.

Indeed.

Grammar rules and style matter because they are a way to communicate and understand. To spread knowledge. That is not to say that no wonderful beauty is to be had in reimagining words. Like David Whyte’s Consolations or Mark Strand’s The Weather of Words. There is wonderful freedom in properly used grammar.

Read more of Kalman’s work in The Principles of Uncertainty a compelling call to notice and care. Not dissimilar to the theme of The Elements of Style.

The original author of The Elements of Style, E.B. White, is one of my favorite writers. His language is short, clear, concise. It is also deeply observational and addresses the most common of feelings and emotions. His Essays is a surprising treat.