How Strunk Lost His Comma

William Strunk Jr.

Section 6.43 in the Spotlight

Chicago style doesn’t require commas when “Jr.” or “Sr.” follows a name. Until just a few decades ago, however, commas were the norm.

So in 1918 when Cornell English professor William Strunk Jr.—as we would style his name today—self-published his now-famous classroom guidelines as a forty-three-page booklet, no one would have questioned the comma in his name.

Title page, Elements of Style, 1918

Text from the original title page of William Strunk Jr.’s The Elements of Style.

Naturally, Strunk had something to say about that comma: “The abbreviations etc. and jr. are always preceded by a comma and, except at the end of a sentence, followed by one” (The Elements of Style [1918], p. 9).*

That advice is found under rule 3: “Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas” (p. 8). That’s also the rule that introduces the terms nonrestrictive and restrictive. Parenthetic expressions are nonrestrictive (and set off by commas); restrictive expressions are not parenthetic (and not set off by commas).

Strunk considered “Jr.” to be parenthetic and, therefore, nonrestrictive.

Two years later, in 1920, the book got a fancy New York publisher (Harcourt, Brace). For this edition, rule 3 was expanded to include the year as parenthetic in expressions like “November 11, 1918.”

White Inherits Strunk and His Comma

By the 1950s, Strunk’s former student E. B. White (of Charlotte’s Web and New Yorker fame) was asked to revise the late professor’s book. Strunk’s comma survived the first two editions, published in 1959 and 1972, respectively, by Macmillan.

Strunk & White cover, 2nd edition

The cover of the second edition of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (1972).

White’s first revision preserved Strunk’s rationale: “The abbreviations etc. and jr. are parenthetic and are always to be so regarded” (1st ed. [1959], p. 3). For the next edition, academic degrees were added: “The abbreviations etc. and Jr. are parenthetic and are always to be so regarded, as are the abbreviations for academic degrees” (2nd ed. [1972], p. 3).

Academic degrees still get commas; see CMOS 10.21.

White Ditches Strunk’s Comma

In 1979, when the third edition of Strunk & White was published, Strunk’s comma was nowhere to be found. This was obvious even to the casual observer, because Strunk’s and White’s names on the cover were now huge.

The cover of the third edition of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (1979).

Nor was this merely a design decision for the cover only; the commas had also disappeared from the copyright page.

Here’s a snippet from the copyright page of the second edition of Strunk & White (1972). Note the commas around “Jr.” in the penultimate line:

Here’s the equivalent text from the third edition (1979). The commas are now gone:

What happened? (And what would Strunk have thought?)

“Jr.” Isn’t Parenthetic After All

“Although Junior, with its abbreviation Jr., has commonly been regarded as parenthetic, logic suggests that it is, in fact, restrictive and therefore not in need of a comma.” Strunk & White, 3rd ed.

It evidently occurred to White (or to someone working behind the scenes) that “Jr.” and “Sr.”—unlike abbreviations for academic degrees—belong to a name in a way that cannot be considered parenthetic: “Although Junior, with its abbreviation Jr., has commonly been regarded as parenthetic, logic suggests that it is, in fact, restrictive and therefore not in need of a comma” (The Elements of Style, 3rd ed. [New York: Macmillan, 1979], p. 3).

Translation: “Jr.” and “Sr.” identify which person—for example, either Strunk Jr. of Elements fame or his father, Strunk Sr.—and are therefore restrictive.

And that’s how Strunk lost his comma.

* * *

Chicago continued to recommend the traditional commas until 1993, when the 14th edition was published, having missed the opportunity to update its advice for the 13th edition, published in 1982.

Paragraph 6.43 in the 17th edition reiterates the advice from the last few editions that commas are not required when “Jr.” and “Sr.” follow a name—and that they are never used to set off suffixes like “II” and “III.”

* Until very recently, Chicago considered “etc.” to be parenthetic; as of the seventeenth edition, it’s treated simply as the last (or sometimes second) element in a series. See CMOS 6.20.

As you may have noticed in the quotation from the original Elements, Strunk wrote lowercase “jr.” when referring to it apart from the name, an idiosyncratic choice that would persist until the second edition of Strunk & White was published in 1972. Strunk also wrote “non-restrictive”; the hyphen disappeared in the first edition of Strunk & White in 1959.

William Strunk Jr.’s complex place in the copyright statement of Strunk & White reflects the last edition published under Strunk’s name before Macmillan acquired the rights to the book in the late 1950s: The Elements and Practice of Composition (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935), by William Strunk Jr. and Cornell instructor Edward A. Tenney. For more details, including the role of Oliver Strunk, William Jr.’s son, see Mark Garvey, Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style” (New York: Touchstone, 2009), p. 68.

Book images: Google Books, 1918 edition; Internet Archive, 1972 edition and 1979 edition (copyright page only; 3rd ed. cover scanned from a 3rd paperback printing in the author’s possession).

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4 thoughts on “How Strunk Lost His Comma

  1. I have every reason to regret the loss of the comma, for reasons that Strunk, Jr., could not have foreseen. Humans reading suffixes, especially native Anglophones, know that the suffixes are not part of the surnames, but computers have to be programmed to recognize that fact. Agencies in the USA, including the State Department and the Social Security Administration, have failed to do that, and foreign countries are not familiar with the conventions of suffixes at all. The result: my surname has evolved from four letters to six, and I am not sure how to pronounce “Hinejr”. This prevented me from dropping the suffix on official documents after my father died, and, in Italy, caused me to be issued multiple, conflicting Social Security numbers.
    For some of use, commas are still parenthetical.
    Love your articles. Thanks.

  2. Thank you for setting me straight on the issue of Strunk and his comma. It’s been maggotting around in my head for years. When we moved house, which we did often, way back, the house we moved from became known as the old house, and the house we moved to, the new house. When we moved again, the old house became the old old house and the new house became the old house so that the new house could be called the new house. We moved seven times in 12 years, and we lost track of the old and the new along the way. We bought a house and this made talking easier. In Australia we don’t append Sr. and Jr. to men’s names unless we want to sound like an uppity git. Sort of like, putting Esq. after our name. What happens to the Sr. when the Jr. has a baby boy, so that Jr. should naturally become Sr.? Is there room for Sr. Sr. or Jr. Jr. or does the whole job fall apart, and a name ends at Bob or Mick, no matter where on the family tree he grew? And do the girls get a look in at any point?

    • I believe that after the first set of Sr. and Jr., you would start using III, IV, and so on. I guess II would be equivalent to Jr.(?). The easy fix is to name the boy something different from the father. Thanks for adding to my vocabulary: “uppity git.”

      • Mu understanding is that someone who is a II is named for someone other than the father, such as an uncle. So they are not a Jr. I’m not sure what happens if someone who is a II gives his son the same name– is that kid a II Jr.?

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