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I didn't see the 1972 film The Godfather until the mid-1990s, about two decades after the rest of the planet. I have no idea why.

As I watched it, I noted things that seemed familiar. I wondered why this had been called a groundbreaking movie. Rabid Godfather fans, stay with me, please.

I eventually realized that its timeless themes, concise dialogue and perfect execution were, indeed, innovative at the time. The many other films that imitated it never matched the quality of the original. (Let's not even mention The Godfather: Part III.)

I came to a similar belated realization recently when I picked up The Elements of Style.

This small but mighty book by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White teaches and reviews nearly all of the basics of good writing. Its pages of advice seem familiar only because they contain much of what all of my teachers and co-workers have taught me.

Strunk taught English at Cornell University for a mere 46 years. (I'll confess that I nearly always say "Shrunk" instead of "Strunk." It's a hard name.)

He had published The Elements of Style himself in 1918 for his students to use in class. The professor aptly called his 43-page writing guide "the little book," and he revised it once with a co-author before he died in 1946.

Years later, Strunk's former student, writer E.B. White, took on the job of updating the original book. In his 1959 edition, he added words, pages and one chapter on writing. I have the third edition, from 1979, which is still brief at 85 pages plus index.

The book is a succinct assemblage of writing principles. Here are a few:

• Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding 's.

• The number of the subject determines the number of the verb.

• Use definite, specific, concrete language.

• Omit needless words.

• Write with nouns and verbs.

These seem basic, yet people often go astray.

The book has a short section on punctuation and a longer one on misused words and expressions. Word lovers should enjoy absorbing its lessons.

I disagree with only one thing in "Strunk and White." That's not bad. They recommend using the serial comma.

Them: gold, silver, or bronze

Me: gold, silver or bronze

I disagree because I worked in newspapers for more than 25 years, and The Associated Press Stylebook says not to use it.


As a follow-up to recent columns on names, I found a few words and phrases that came from names but have nothing to do with tools.

• Smart Aleck

A "smart aleck" is a showoff, or one who likes to let others know he is clever.

Who is this "Aleck," though?

Merriam-Webster says "Aleck" is a nickname for Alexander. This Alexander must have been a brat to be immortalized this way.

• Raising Cain

To "raise Cain" is to stir up trouble or create an uproar. The King James Version of the Bible says, "Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him."

Murdering your brother seems far more serious than participating in high jinks, but maybe I'm just naive.

• Algorithm

An algorithm is a series of steps you go through to solve a problem in math or computer science.

The Persian mathematician Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi created the idea of algorithms in the ninth century. The word is a Latin alteration of his name.

• Pralines

We can thank Cesar de Choiseul, Count Plessis-Praslin for the sweet pecan treat known as pralines. The French 17th-century military strategist and minister of state had a sensitive stomach. His chef created sugar-coated almonds for him to eat.

When French settlers moved to Louisiana, they brought the recipe with them, though they started using pecans instead of almonds and added cream.

Sources: The Elements of Style, Princeton University,,, Phrase Finder

ActiveStyle on 04/02/2018

Print Headline: Style tips in book timeless


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  • RBBryant
    April 2, 2018 at 10:42 a.m.

    Love it!! I also use the 3rd edition of "The Elements of Style" & thank you for the extra tidbits of information!