Today is the birthday of American grammarian William Strunk Jr. (books by this author), born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1869). He taught English at Cornell for 46 years, but before that, he taught math at the Rose Polytechnic Institute in Terre Haute, Indiana.
But of course he is best known for a book that he self-published in 1918 for the benefit of his students at Cornell. He called it The Elements of Style, and its purpose, he wrote, was “to lighten the task of instructor and student by concentrating attention […] on a few essentials, the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated.” Students called it “the little book,” and it was little: it numbered just 43 pages. In it, Strunk laid down several principles for effective written communication, including: “Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, non-committal language” and “Use the active voice.” He also suggests: “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 his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.”
One of his students at Cornell was a young man named Elwyn Brooks White, more familiar to readers as E.B. White, the essayist and author of beloved children’s books like Charlotte’s Web (1952). While working as an editor at The New Yorker in 1957, White dusted off Strunk’s little book — which he described as a “forty-three-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English” — and wrote a feature story about it. He revised the style guide, expanded it, and updated it. MacMillan and Company published it to wider audiences in 1959; White’s contribution to The Elements of Style was so extensive that he is considered a co-author, and the book is commonly known simply as “Strunk and White.” In 2011, Time named it one of the best and most influential books written in English since 1923.