100 years on, Strunk’s advice rings true

E.B. White helped turn a professor’s rhetorical manual into an international hit. A look at the abiding lessons of Strunk and White’s ‘The Elements of Style.’

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Elements of Style turns 100

A century ago, a Cornell University student took an English class taught by a professor out of step with what even then was an age of volubility.

Professor William Strunk Jr. lived by the rule, “Omit needless words!” He had trouble filling his appointed hour, wrote then-student E.B. White, who later would revise Strunk’s brief classic “The Elements of Style.”

“In those days when I was sitting in his class,” White writes, “he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself—a man left with nothing more to say yet time to fill, a radio prophet who had outdistanced the clock.”

Strunk escaped this predicament by uttering every sentence three times, White writes. Strunk leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels, and in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, “Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”

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