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The Elements of Style

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 every word tell.

There were two required texts for my undergraduate Evolution class: Evolutionary Analysis by Scott Freeman (link is to new edition rather thean the one I used), and The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and E.B. White (link to original 1918 edition). The former seemed appropriate at the time while the latter confused me greatly. The course was writing intensive and a large part of our grade was based on our writing clear, concise and substantial analyses of primary literature as well as a 30 page review paper. At the time I am sure that I looked through the style book but I can honestly say that I did not give it the consideration it deserved.

Today, in an act of procrastination, I took the ‘little book’ from the shelf, blew the dust off of the binding and leafed through it over a cup of coffee and realized how relevant it is, even nearly a century after its first publication. The above quote is a great summary of what my advisors have been telling me for years concerning scientific writing. In the version I have (1979) there are 11 elementary rules of usage which I mention below:

  1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s
  2. In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last
  3. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas
  4. Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause
  5. Do not join independent clauses by a comma
  6. Do not break sentences in two
  7. Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation
  8. Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary
  9. The number of the subject determines the number of the verb
  10. Use the proper case of pronoun
  11. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical object.

These are timeless rules of grammar. The book includes a few things that have not survived the ages such as the following section discriminating against the use of the suffix “-ize”, that I believe only appears in the White edited version of the text (not in the original)

Do no coin verbs by adding this tempting suffix. Many good and useful verbs do end in –ize: summarize, temporize, fraternize, harmonize, fertilize. But there is a growing list of abominations: containerize, customize, prioritize, finalize, to name four. Be suspicious of –ize; let your ear and your eye guide you. Never tack –ize onto a noun to create a verb. Usually you will discover that a useful verb already exists. Why say “moisturize” when there is the simple, unpretentious word “moisten”.

What a fantastic quote! Needless to say, it seems that society has not agreed with the authors, as evidenced by the inclusion of all of the ‘abominations’ in the MS word dictionary. Not to mention the numerous other –ize words in common usage today. I think that one of my new favorite quotes is the last sentence about the word “moisten”.

Overall, this book is still as relevant and accurate as it was nearly a century ago and I will strive to make my writing follow Strunk’s guidelines to the best of my ability.    

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