Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style," one of the most famous books about grammar and usage, was published 50 years ago April 16. The slim book has sold more than 10 million copies, according to this Associated Press report. Its influence is wide.
William Strunk Jr., an English professor at Cornell University, published his own book in 1918 as a guide to his students. One student, E.B. White, became a well-regarded writer and revised the book for publication in 1959. The book emphasizes plain, clear and concise writing, and lays down rules such as "omit needless words" and "use the proper case of pronoun." Many college students and journalists have used Strunk and White and have become better writers.
Strunk and White might be the first usage book I read. Editors I worked for in my first years in the newspaper business swore by the little book. Indeed, more than one journalist has told me, "Strunk and White is all you need to know how to write." Perhaps that's true.
Not everyone worships Strunk and White. Read this review in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Geoffrey K. Pullum, a linguistics professor, calls the book "overopinionated and underinformed." He especially goes after the advice on passive voice. Professor Pullum would probably hate this blog, too. (Thanks to my former colleague Will Sutton for pointing out this article.)
I still refer to Strunk and White, but being a hardcore grammar and usage book collector, I have other guides on my favorites list. "Garner's Modern American Usage" is more useful for looking up specific usage questions, and the "Gregg Reference Manual" has more thorough information organized well, plus it tells you how to type a business letter. I also rely on "Fowler's Modern English Usage," "The Careful Writer," "Words on Words," "The Writer's Digest Grammar and Desk Reference" and Diana Hacker's "A Writer's Reference."
Still, if I were recommending books for a student or any young writer, I would put Strunk and White high on the list. It's short and contains practical advice. The chapter "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused" should be required reading for any writing or English class from seventh grade through senior year.