One more post on Geoffrey K. Pullum, William Strunk Jr., and E.B. White:
I wrote a few days ago that Geoffrey Pullum's Chronicle piece on The Elements of Style exhibits "a significant degree of distortion and plain misreading." I want to offer two more examples of such distortion elsewhere, not because I'm a great fan of Strunk and White but because I think it's important to consider the ways in which Pullum criticizes their work. Here's Pullum in 2005 on Strunk, White, adjectives, and adverbs:
One of the sternest strictures delivered in Strunk & White's stupid little book is the prohibition on the use of adjectives and adverbs. Simply do not use them, they say: "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs" (The Elements of Style, p. 71).Pullum repeated this claim three days ago, responding to a caller on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation (at 8:57):
You mentioned that we should omit needless words, Strunk's famous injunction — "Omit needless words" — and that in a hasty manner is verbose where hastily would be better. Yes, they do say that. They also say don't use adjectives and adverbs at all; write with nouns and verbs; and that would rule out hastily, wouldn't it? Some of the advice is just cuckoo.Don't use adjectives and adverbs?! At all?! That advice would be cuckoo indeed. Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan let Pullum's claim go unquestioned.
Here's what Strunk and White say (on pages 71-72 in the 4th ed.):
Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech. Occasionally they surprise us with their power, as inPullum not only represents Strunk and White as saying about adjectives and adverbs what they don't say; he represents them as saying something utterly absurd. What Strunk and White would like their reader to avoid is dopey overwriting: "cold, round doorknob," "wept sadly," "said humorously" (my examples). But as Strunk and White also recognize, adjectives and adverbs can be powerful stuff. Proust, for one — he's never far from my mind — strings together well-chosen adjectives in wonderful, unexpected ways.
Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren't go a-hunting
For fear of little men . . .
The nouns mountain and glen are accurate enough, but had the mountain not become airy, the glen rushy, William Allingham might never have got off the ground with his poem. In general, however, it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color.
In the 2005 item I quote above, Pullum tallies the adjectives and adverbs in a passage from a White essay and pronounces its author a "linguistic hypocrite" for failing to follow his own "rules" against adjective and adverb use. There are no such rules. I think that Pullum's disdain for The Elements of Style, the "stupid little book," often leads him to distort and misread the plain sense of the text. None of us are perfect, not Pullum, not Strunk, not White. And not me.
Pullum on Strunk and White
More on Pullum, Strunk, White
Strunk and White and wit
The Elements of Style, one more time