Scottish linguist Geoffrey Pullum’s take-down in the Chronicle of Higher Education of the venerable Strunk and White Elements of Style has received some notoriety. It’s Elements‘ 50th anniversary this month, but Pullum isn’t celebrating in “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.” I have a copy of Elements and like many others thought its advice was the last word(s), but like many others have never managed to follow it because its advice, as Pullum neatly demonstrates, was unfollowable and shouldn’t have been followed anyway. Pullum’s piece is behind a subscription paywall (here), but since I subscribe I got to read it (nyah, nyah) [edit: Commenter MM (thanks!) says it is freely available at the link. Enjoy.]. Very entertaining. Just as entertaining (although not as enlightening) was his response over at the Language Log to the slings and arrows of outrageous commenters at Fark.com, where it got linked. First a little bit of the original, then some of his response.
From Pullum’s “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice”:
The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students’ grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.
“Use the active voice” is a typical section head. And the section in question opens with an attempt to discredit passive clauses that is either grammatically misguided or disingenuous.
What concerns me is that the bias against the passive is being retailed by a pair of authors so grammatically clueless that they don’t know what is a passive construction and what isn’t. Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses.
The treatment of the passive is not an isolated slip. It is typical of Elements. The book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules. They can’t help it, because they don’t know how to identify what they condemn.
“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,” they insist. (The motivation of this mysterious decree remains unclear to me.)
And then, in the very next sentence, comes a negative passive clause containing three adjectives: “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.”
That’s actually not just three strikes, it’s four, because in addition to contravening “positive form” and “active voice” and “nouns and verbs,” it has a relative clause (“that can pull”) removed from what it belongs with (the adjective), which violates another edict: “Keep related words together.”
“Keep related words together” is further explained in these terms: “The subject of a sentence and the principal verb should not, as a rule, be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning.” That is a negative passive, containing an adjective, with the subject separated from the principal verb by a phrase (“as a rule”) that could easily have been transferred to the beginning. Another quadruple violation. (Geoffrey Pullum, Chronicle for Higher Education)
Etc., etc., to devastating effect. By the end, I had lost all my anxieties and insecurities about split infinitives, “that” versus “which,” using “However,” at the beginning of a sentence and much more. What a relief.
However, over at Fark.com people relieve themselves differently. As their FAQ says: “Fark.com, the Web site, is a news aggregator and an edited social networking news site.” Fark functions as a news aggregator by having readers submit links. As a social networking site it allows comments. And it is those comments to which Pullum responds:
- To the guy who asked “why is a Scot writing invectives about an American style guide? That’s like having a French writer comment on a style guide from French Canada”: I’ve been an American citizen longer than you’ve been alive, and I have 25 years’ experience of teaching about language at the University of California.
- To the various people who assert that I am a disappointed style-guide author plugging a rival text (“the article’s author has his own competing book to flog”): I haven’t written anything that could plausibly be recommended to a freshman taking English composition. When people ask me for recommendations, I tell them to look at the very sensible and intelligent book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams.
- To the guy who said “my penis could type a better article”: your girlfriend told me she doesn’t think so.
Of course Pullum is an academic writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Apparently the reading level was a bit above that of the average Farker:
Finally, a couple of people just couldn’t stomach the following admittedly rather complex sentence of mine:
William Strunk was a professor of English at Cornell about a hundred years ago, and E.B. White, later the much-admired author of Charlotte’s Web, took English with him in 1919, purchasing as a required text the first edition, which Strunk had published privately.
I did overestimate the reading age of Fark commenters. And naturally they assume that my piece is an exemplar of style, not a set of claims about why Americans are confused about grammar. So to train me in Strunkian style, we’re going to make me say that again using only simple active clauses with no needless words:
Strunk was a professor. Cornell employed Strunk. Strunk taught English. A century has passed. Strunk published Elements. Strunk paid the bill. The edition number was 1. Cornell admitted E. B. White. White took English. The year was 1919. White bought Elements. Many years passed. White wrote Charlotte’s Web. People admired White.
I hope that clears up the matter of what I meant with all my relative clauses and stuff.
Yes. It did. However.