If you’ve studied English literature in college, you may have heard about a little book called Shrunk & White: The Elements of Style.
Originally written by E.B. White's professor at Cornell University –– "Professor Shrunk" –– in 1918, this 85-page treatise on English composition and style has been a crowd favorite among grammarians and English enthusiasts since White first made it accessible it to the public (1959). It consists of 54 points: 11 rules on punctuation and grammar, 11 on the principles of writing, 11 on matters of form, a list of common word-usage errors, and 21 recommendations on improving one’s own style.
I recently reread Shrunk & White after 6 years of having read it for the first time in college. While I think some of the rules are a bit outdated for fiction writing, I still think it's a staple for all writers and editors.
Why’s that? you might be wondering.
Because, when it comes to composition and making your words flow better, there are no other books like it. It’s also small, compact, and breaks down the components of style in digestible parts that are easy to understand. I also like how passionate Shrunk gets when talking about certain topics. It makes me feel less alone.
There are other reason too, but I'll only talk about a few right now. If you haven’t read it already, I hope by the end of this post, you will be persuaded to pick it up.
Reason 1: It teaches what a “suitable [compositional] design” looks like
In other words, what constitutes as good compositional structure.
This is pretty unique among style books. Sure, other style books—or books about punctuation and grammar usage—go over where nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives should be placed in a sentence, but none of them give advice on how to structure a whole passage syntactically, which helps you organize your thoughts more clearly. Not only that, but having a good design also helps readers understand your ideas better.
Shrunk not only gives examples of what good structure is, but also gives advice on how you can achieve it. Rules like “Omit needless words” (#17), “Avoid a succession of loose sentences” (#18), and “Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end” (#22) are helpful to keep in mind when trying to better structure your writing on a micro and macro level. If writing is communication and its goal is to convey our ideas effectively, having a good design helps.
Reason 2: It lays out the goal of writing plainly
I don’t know about you, but when I’m writing, I often forget what my writing should do: namely, to communicate my ideas clearly.
Though other style books stress this too, Shrunk & White doesn’t take 500 pages to explain it or to show you how to do it. It does this in less than 20 entires—guidelines, if you will; most ostensively, rule #16 under “An Approach to Style” (“Be clear”). Shrunk writes, “Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope … Think of all the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity, and be clear!”
Nothing like a good scare to remind you about your goals. Sometimes, we all need a reminder like this.
Reason 3: The list of commonly misused words and phrases is extremely helpful
Quick question: Do you know the difference between effect and affect? Yeah, neither did I until I read Shrunk & White the first time around.
With that said, I find the section of misused words and phrases to be very useful. I sometimes prefer it to Google. 120 entries make up this list and most of them are words and phrases we use everyday. So far, none of the entries has saved my life, but they’ve certainly saved me a lot hemming and hawing over a phrase that sounds right but is used incorrectly.
If anything, Shrunk & White is good to have around just in case you need a quick reference or to be inspired. Who knows, maybe you’ll find you have a passion for correct grammar and style like Shrunk does.
Tell Me About It
Have you read Shrunk & White? What are some of your favorite rules?