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Taking whacks at Strunk and White

Posted by guest  April 17, 2009 12:30 PM

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A friend who teaches at a major university in the area tells me that there is a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education by a linguistics professor at the University of Edinburgh being passed around writing centers and the English department at her school and eliciting not-so-muffled calls of support along with a not inconsiderable amount of giggling.
strunk.jpg

The essay, "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,'' takes the venerated little style guide to task on the occasion of its 50th birthday, which took place on Thursday. (Instant update: I just learned that NPR has also recently weighed in on the dust-up.)

The piece takes backhanded shots at the book's guidance on style ("vapid'' and "silly" but perhaps best "described the way "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'' describes Earth: mostly harmless'').

Author Geoffrey K. Pullum's main complaint, however, is with the way Strunk and White ("grammatical incompetents'') teach grammar, particularly given that "'Elements' settled in as the primary vehicle through which grammar was taught to college students and the general public.''

Pullum rails at blanket dictums such as "use the active voice,'' pointing out that there are completely appropriate uses of the passive voice and poking fun at the fact that Strunk and White apparently unwittingly lapse into passive voice in a number of places.

He also takes issue with their injunction against the split infinitive, arguing that it "has always been grammatical and does not need to be avoided.''

Pullum scratches his head at the fact that Strunk and White seemingly "preferred to base their grammar claims on intuition and prejudice rather than established literary usage.''

As evidence he takes apart their instructions on the verb agreement with the word "none'' (always use the singular verb, they counsel), their command to refrain from starting a sentence with "however,'' and the insistence that "which'' should not be used to introduce a restrictive relative clause. He rebuts these assertions by citing places where the practices of many famous and celebrated writers over the years contradict the guidance offered by "Elements.''

All in all, a good bit of fun for writerly and academic types. Pass it on.

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17 comments so far...
  1. You mean Geoffrey K. Pullum, not Geoffrey E.

    Posted by fact checker April 17, 09 01:46 PM
  1. Sorry, Mr. Pullum, I agree with Messrs. Strunk and White in every instance. The English two-word infinitive is an indivisible unit of speech, and splitting it with adverbs ruins the rhythm of expression. "None"? It's "no one". Singular. Period. Using "which" to introduce a restrictive clause is awkward, to say the least. Pullum seems to advocate shedding the rules of grammar and usage for the sake of convenience, a.k.a. laziness. It gives rise to such linguistic atrocities as the popular substitution of "myself" for the appropriate "me" in even the simplest of contexts.

    Posted by Mac April 17, 09 02:00 PM
  1. Pullum's article is a good read, however downloading classic texts looking for examples where these writers happened to "break the rules" is a bit of a stretch.

    Posted by Harrybosch April 17, 09 02:59 PM
  1. "The Little Book" is still a very helpful tool if we take it, like most advise, with a measure of flexibility as the Chicago Manual of Style recommends. No single guide can address the wide range of situations that English writers around the world address. The book has stood the test of time and proved useful to many excellent writers, who no doubt use other sources too.

    Posted by Fred April 17, 09 03:01 PM
  1. Strunk & White have some good points, but the split infinitive is not one of them, Mac. You can find any amount of evidence that the anti-split infinitive movement is relatively modern and a kind of grammar myth, and there are cases when the split infinitive is perfectly okay, in fact, more expressive: "To boldly go where no man has gone before," for example

    I would disagree that Pullum is advocating for laziness, he's advocating for what many of us word nerds want: adaptability and an acknowledgment that language grows and changes with time.

    Posted by hot-tomato April 17, 09 03:03 PM
  1. I have a well worn copy of S&W, but I take it with a grain of salt. For example, I have never heard a persuasive defense of the so-called "rule" against split infinitives, and I generally find that they improve the rhythm of writing (e.g., "to boldy go where no man has gone before"). Sorry, Mac.

    That said, I think people who use plural verb forms with "none" should be hanged, drawn, and quartered.

    Posted by Paul April 17, 09 03:20 PM
  1. Yeah, um, British English vs American English.

    Posted by vc April 17, 09 04:05 PM
  1. I encounter such appalling writing from my university students (and often from my colleagues) that I am happy to have Strunk and White to which I can refer them. There are some things up with which I will not put, no matter whether the Chronicle sees things otherwise.

    Posted by Appalled Paul April 17, 09 04:05 PM
  1. Youse all is stuffed shirts. I doan know nuthing about splittin' infititives or whatcamacallits, but I is always splttin' an order of fries at work. Them orders are way to big and full of chlrestoral. Know what I mean? Ya know wut. I'd like to meat this guy Pullsem and give him a few words of my own. Strunk you, Pullpud.

    Posted by North End Numb Nut April 17, 09 04:38 PM
  1. Help me out here. Strunk & White aren't offering grammar advice, they're offering style advice. The book is not called "Elements of Grammar."

    Posted by geocool April 17, 09 05:01 PM
  1. Read Williams, "Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace." Much of what you've covered above he covers as well.

    Posted by To Boldly Go April 17, 09 05:25 PM
  1. Let sleeping dogs lay. However, to badly write is so wrong. Personally, i think that in the foreseeable future there will be "eggheads" and "airheads", neither of who is myself. Which is to say, none knows no better than that which was wrought when Strunk & White wrote their thought. Pullum's a Putz.

    Posted by Gerard April 17, 09 06:14 PM
  1. We don't need Strunk & White. We have Microsoft Word to shape our writing into generic blandness. I hate to admit it but I have stopped certain usages that I believe are perfectly acceptable simply to avoid the dreaded green underline.

    Posted by Red-Mama April 17, 09 06:52 PM
  1. About ninety-nine percent of people who express themselves in writing would benefit far more from heeding "The Elements of Style" than from a critique of it. After one becomes adept, stylistic variations may be applied.

    Posted by AguaCaliente April 18, 09 09:59 AM
  1. In his Chronicle article Mr. Pullman writes, "Notice what I am objecting to is not the style advice in Elements, which might best be described the way The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy describes Earth: mostly harmless."

    He also rails against S & W's "Omit needless words."

    Mr. Pullman, please omit needless words and non sequiturs. Try this: "I do not object to the style advice in Elements; It is mostly harmless."

    Posted by steveo April 18, 09 04:05 PM
  1. S&W remains a useful reference for styles of 10th grade U.S. English. It was surprising to see one reader mention the Word grammar-and-style-checker, which will take you somewhere south of 8th grade English. That was a throwaway made years ago when there was still some competition in word processors -- just so that Word would have one. It never worked well enough to be useful and is turned off by most writers.

    Posted by AppDev April 18, 09 06:06 PM
  1. The Word grammar checker is wrong most of the time. If you don't like the underlining, turn it off while you're writing. I like the grammar checker for catching certain types of typos, but this assumes that you have an excellent command of English grammar to begin with, otherwise it will mislead you. Of course, the biggest problem is that fact that Word has destroyed more of my work than any other piece of software I ever used. I no longer feel safe using it.

    Posted by Mike April 19, 09 01:21 AM
 
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