Strunk and White: Cutting clutter and throttling the passive voice

The famous ‘Elements of Style’ marks a century of lessons for writers: ‘Omit needless words,’ and use a ‘concise, comprehensive statement’ to anchor descriptive paragraphs, among others.


If you ever head back to college to finish that master’s degree, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s “The Elements of Style” could provide a refresher in term-paper structure.

Communicators, however, may find less interest in the college writing-type tips that start Section III. Few professional writers fret over topic sentences or providing supporting information.

Page deeper, however, and the section titled “Elementary Principles of Composition” offers a wealth of helpful tips for the writing professional. These can come in the form of old lessons we have forgotten, along with new (to us, anyway) tips worth putting into practice.

In the centenary of the Strunk and White collaboration, we are taking another look at this influential little book. We are finding much to appreciate in the advice that has guided communicators, journalists, copywriters and others for so many years.

Journalistic and web writing demand a different structure with shorter paragraphs, and they often rely on inverted pyramid or news feature structure. Yet even here one can find nuggets of gold.

“In narration and description the paragraph sometimes begins with a concise, comprehensive statement serving to hold together the details that follow,” Strunk and White state.

They cite a sentence from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” Let’s look at Stevenson’s entire paragraph, however, to see how such a sentence sets up what follows:

The breeze served us admirably. We skimmed before it like a bird, the coast of the island flashing by and the view changing every minute. Soon we were past the high lands and bowling beside low, sandy country, sparsely dotted with dwarf pines, and soon we were beyond that again and had turned the corner of the rocky hill that ends the island on the north.

Page through section III to point No. 11, and you’ll be reminded why the slim book remains so influential among communicators, journalists and other writers.

“Use the active voice,” the authors advise, “The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.”

For example, “I shall always remember my first visit to Boston” is better than, “My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.”

“The latter sentence is less direct, less bold, and less concise,” Strunk and White state. “If the writer tries to make it more concise by omitting ‘by me’ … it becomes indefinite: is it the writer, or some person undisclosed, or the world at large, that will always remember this visit?”

Cutting ‘there is.’

Most professional writers know to limit the use of the passive voice. While inveighing against its habitual use, the authors offer an example of a phrase that I always try to rewrite: “there were” (also “there is,” “there are,” there was,” etc.). Compare the following:

There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.

Dead leaves covered the ground.

A certain hack noted this years ago. For example, Bank of America’s CEO once used the phrase “there is” to deny that his firm needed to raise more money due to problems with mortgage investors.

He said, “There is no capital raise needed here,” when he meant to say, “We don’t need to raise capital.”

“Many a tame sentence of description or exposition,” Strunk and White write, “can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as ‘there is,’ or ‘could be heard.’”

Doubling down on the passive

If passive can be clunky, how about “making one passive depend directly upon another”? It is easy—and much clearer to rewrite, “Gold was not allowed to be exported,” as, “It was forbidden to export gold” (Strunk and White’s example). Or how about omitting the passive altogether, as in, “The government banned the export of gold”?

The authors also urge the reader: “Put statements in positive form. Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, non-committal language. Use the word ‘not’ as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.”

Thus, “He was not very often on time,” becomes, “He usually came late.”

Hence, heed the following:

Clunky: Not honest

Better: Dishonest

Clunky: Not important

Better: Trifling

Clunky: Did not remember

Better: Forgot

Clunky: Did not pay any attention to

Better: Ignored

Cut, cut, cut.

That section also includes the following advice, perhaps Strunk and White’s most famous: “Omit needless words.”

When the Guardian asked writers for their tips, several mentioned pruning one’s prose.

“Editing is everything,” wrote Esther Freud. “Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life.”

Strunk and White list phrases that should raise a red flag:

“The question as to whether” can be trimmed to “whether” or “the question whether.” My bugaboo “there is” is a part of the ugly use “there no doubt but that”; use plain, old “doubtless” instead.

“He is a man who…”? No, no, no. “He is.” And whatever oddball past he has, replace “his story is a strange one” with “his story is strange.”

Strunk and White often serve up useful tips that even experienced writers tend to forget. “Who is, which was, and the like are often superfluous,” they state. Consider these examples:

Clunky: His brother, who is a member of the same firm…

Better: His brother, a member of the same firm

Clunky: Trafalgar, which was Nelson’s last battle…

Better: Trafalgar, Nelson’s last battle…

We all can slip into thoughtlessly spouting tropes and clichés. If a century-old book can help us freshen our writing, it’s worth thumbing through its lessons every so often.

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