You and Your Research and The Elements of Style

Many thanks to the organisers of PLMW for inviting me to give a talk. Additional resources are listed below.
  • Philip Wadler, lectures on communication skills (video).
  • Richard W. Hamming, You and Your Research (video).
  • William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, Longman, 1999 (Fourth edition), £4.71 from Amazon.
  • Free Online Edition of William Strunk, Jr.'s 1918 original.
  • Geoffrey Pullum, 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice. I stand by my claim that the modest monetary and time cost to read Strunk and White is the best investment you can make in your career, but do take into account Pullum's critique. (My thanks to those who alerted me to Pullum's article.)
  • Donald Knuth, Technical writing. Section 1 is particularly valuable.
  • George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, from Inside the Whale and Other Essays, Penguin, 1969.
  • C.A.R. Hoare, Advice, offered at Marktoberdorf 2006.
  • C.A.R. Hoare, Envoi, in Essays in Computing Science, C.A.R. Hoare and C.B. Jones, editors, Prentice Hall, 1989.
  • Sir Ernest Gowers, The Complete Plain Words, Penguin, 2004 (Third revised edition.) [Recommended to me by others.]
  • Joseph Williams, Style: Towards Clarity and Grace, University of Chicago Press, 1995 (new edition). [Recommended to me by others.]
  • Lyn Dupre, Bugs in Writing: A Guide to Debugging Your Prose, Addison-Wesley Professional, 2nd edition, 1998. [Recommended to me by others.]
  • Max Atkins, Lend Me Your Ears: All you need to know about making speeches and presentations, Vemilion, 2004.
  • David Allen, Getting Things Done: How to achieve stress-free productivity, Piatkus, 2001.
  • Edward Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Graphics Press, 2001 (second edition).
  • Edward Tufte, Envisioning Information, Graphics Press, 1990. (Challenger is discussed on pages 38–52.)
  • Edward Tufte, Visual Explanations, Graphics Press, 1997.
  • Edward Tufte, Beautiful Evidence, Graphics Press, 2006. (Powerpoint is discussed on pages 156–185.)
  • Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.
  • Randy Pausch, Time Management.
  • Bret Victor, Inventing on Principle.
  • Bret Victor, Magic Ink.
  • TED Talks.


  1. Prof Wadler, I can't believe you're recommending Strunk & White (or George Orwell's nasty little essay).

    As an IT Professional, I regularly have to deal with technicians who are perfectly capable of explaining themselves, except when faced with having to produce written documents. They get paranoid about all those half-remembered rules on style -- not helped by Microsoft's wavy green underlines. I tell them: read it out loud. Does it make sense? Does it sound natural? If they can't tell, none of S&W's rules is going to help -- after all, S&W themselves didn't take any notice.

    Prof Pullum is also at Edinburgh. Go and see him.


  2. I'm not sure that Strunk and White (as frequently wrong as they are) are significantly worse than any other pontificators on grammar, usage, and style. But such pontifications should be regarded as having only entertainment value.I recommend Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage—which is based on consensus among "experts", and on how respected writers actually write—as an antidote to the idiosyncratic propaganda found in many of the books you list.(You should also list the original edition of Foster's Modern English Usage, not as serious advice, but as evidence of how arbitrary and silly such propaganda tends to be. Foster is about as arbitrary and opinionated as the rest, but he is so outdated that his attempts at rule-making are transparently silly. Why, I ask, did we not heed his call to spell "buzz" and "fizz" with a single Z? Have we, at long last, no decency?)

    1. I find this list of references is just great and quite helpful. Technical writing is not beletristic. There are certain rules/advices one should follow. Maybe it's true that for some people no wrinting guide in this world would help, but in most cases it makes a lot of difference

  3. What AntC said. I was in the audience at the 2014 version of this talk and was rolling my eyes... please do take the time to talk to Geoffrey Pullum about language. I'm sure he will have a lot to tell you.

  4. Prof Wadler just gave a great talk about this subject to the Imperial College CS PhD Conference. Everybody had something to think about, and something to contribute. And, I, who have read most of the mentioned literature, appreciated seeing it all together, and thinking about it as a whole.

    Thank you Phil, for a great lecture.

  5. Most of the literature on writing is about how to shape individual sentences, or, at most, how to combine a couple of sentences into a coherent paragraph.

    QUESTION: Does anybody know of any books or articles giving advice on the structure of a piece of writing, e.g. what to say in what order?