[Zetta’s Reference Desk] – Elements of Style by Strunk & White

strunk and whiteAward-winning mystery author Kathleen Kaska is my guest this week, and her favorite writing reference is a classic.

Title: The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

Author(s): William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White

Year Published: 1999

Pages: 105

The Little and (or but) Important Writing Reference Book

by Kathleen Kaska



Is using Sherlock Holmes’s method of deductive reasoning an effective or affective way to solve a problem?

Does Hercule Poirot’s obsessive neatness aggravate or irritate you?

Is the final scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo an allusion or illusion?

I have a plethora of writing reference books on my shelf: books on crime references, police procedures, plot development, dialogue writing, and several on the craft of writing. Truth be told, once I read most of those tomes, I’ve rarely cracked their covers again. If I need a technical question answered, like, “What type of blood-splatter does a .45 create?” I Google it.

But there’s one book I keep close at hand and refer to often. It costs less than seven dollars, fits into my pocket, and was first published eighty years ago. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr., and later updated by E. B. White, is my go-to reference whenever I need to review rules of usage and principles of composition and form.

The chapter I utilize the most is one not often found in writing reference books, or at least not in such a concise manner. It’s something I should probably read everyday: “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused.” The three examples above cause me to pause every time I use certain words in a sentence. The Elements of Style makes distinctions clear. Affective is an adjective meaning “arising from” or “relating to.” Effective is an adjective meaning “to bring about” or “to accomplish.” Aggravate means “to add to a vexing situation,” and irritate means “to annoy.” Allusion is “an indirect reference,” and illusion means “a false impression.”

Dr. Watson would claim Holmes’s deductive reasoning is affective. Poirot’s obsessive neatness irritates Captain Hastings, and the illusions in Hitchcock’s finale scene in Vertigo leaves Scottie (James Stewart) with a false impression.

How about these two words—also defined in Strunk and White’s little but important book: nauseous and nauseated. Do people who pick their noses make you nauseous or nauseated? Actually, for me, they do both. I’m nauseous because their behavior is sickening to contemplate and nauseated because it makes me feel sick to my stomach.

There are times when I have fun with the misuse of words. One of my characters in my Sydney Lockhart Mystery Series is a ditzy blonde named Ruth who often uses the wrong word, not in a grammatical way, but in a, well, ditzy blonde way. In my WIP, Sydney avoids Ruth, which annoys her. Here’s Ruth’s comment:

“I came all the way to San Antonio to get you out of another bind and you avoid me. You act as if I had the bluebonnet plague.”

In Ruth’s defense, the story takes place in the late spring when the Texas’s state flower is in full bloom.


Kathleen Kaska writes the Sydney Lockhart Mystery Series and the Classic Triviography Mystery Series. Her Sherlock Holmes and Alfred Hitchcock trivia books were finalists for the 2013 EPIC Award in nonfiction.

Website: http://www.kathleenkaska.com
Blog: http://www.kathleenkaskawrites.blogspot.com/


©2015. Zetta Brown. All Rights Reserved.

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