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[Note: There are links at the end of this post to four more posts on Pullum, Strunk, and White.]
"Fifty Years of Stupid Grammar Advice," Geoffrey K. Pullum's recent piece on William Strunk and E.B. White's The Elements of Style, is snarky and sensational enough to appeal to a reader suspicious of a dos-and-don'ts approach to writing. How refreshing to be told — by a grammarian no less — that Strunk and White are "grammatical incompetents," "idiosyncratic bumblers," purveyors of "uninformed bossiness" and "misbegotten rules." Pullum's professional indignation shines in this slightly funny sentence: "Certainly White was a fine writer, but he was not qualified as a grammarian."
True enough. But Pullum's take on Strunk and White involves a significant degree of distortion and plain misreading. For example:
Pullum characterizes some of Strunk and White's recommendations as "vapid." Pullum's example: "Be clear." By itself, yes, vapid. In context, "Be clear" involves some common-sense advice about sentence revision:
When you become hopelessly mired in a sentence, it is best to start fresh; do not try to fight your way through against the terrible odds of syntax. Usually what is wrong is that the construction has become too involved at some point; the sentence needs to be broken apart and replaced by two or more shorter sentences.Pullum labels "Do not explain too much" "tautologous." In context, this seemingly unhelpful recommendation appears more useful, as it's followed by advice to avoid adverbs after said when writing dialogue. "Let the conversation itself disclose the speaker's manner or condition," say Strunk and White. Again, reasonable and potentially useful advice.
Pullum says that "many" of Strunk and White's recommendations are "useless," citing "Omit needless words" as an example. On its own, this advice is no more helpful than telling a musician to avoid playing wrong notes. But "Omit needless words" doesn't appear on its own; it's accompanied by sixteen examples of how to improve cumbersome phrasing (e.g., "the fact that") and a demonstration of how six choppy sentences can be revised into one.
Even the recommendation "Do not inject opinion," which Pullum calls "truly silly," makes sense in context, as a reminder not to bring hobbyhorses and pet peeves into contexts where they're irrelevant:
If you have received a letter inviting you to speak at the dedication of a new cat hospital, and you hate cats, your reply, declining the invitation, does not necessarily have to cover the full range of your emotions. You must make it clear that you will not attend, but you do not have to let fly at cats.Pullum's summing up — "Following the platitudinous style recommendations of Elements would make your writing better if you knew how to follow them" — seems to forget that The Elements of Style is, after all, a book, with examples and explanations to help the reader to put its recommendations into practice.
Pullum's greater ire concerns what he calls Strunk and White's "grammar stipulations," which have "degraded" "American students' grasp of English grammar." Strunk and White: menaces to society! I'm not convinced. I teach many students who have never been taught to look at their writing with any degree of care for clarity and concision. (Indeed, student-writers, encouraged by "vocab"-loving teachers and word-counts, often value the ponderous prose that Strunk and White disdain.) In college composition classes, Strunk and White's minimalism seems passé, replaced by what's called a "handbook," typically a hardcover book of 1,000+ pages. My evidence is anecdotal, but I have never had a student mention Strunk and White as a significant part of her or his writing education. The Elements of Style now seems far more popular outside the world of English instruction, particularly among tech types, whose work writing code would foster respect for clarity and concision.
And speaking of tech stuff, I'm so glad I switched to a Mac. But there I go, injecting opinion. Back to grammar.
Pullum devotes almost a quarter of his essay to Strunk and White's advice to "Use the active voice." After granting that Strunk and White acknowledge appropriate use of the passive voice, Pullum blames them for what others have made of their work:
Sadly, writing tutors tend to ignore this moderation, and simply red-circle everything that looks like a passive, just as Microsoft Word's grammar checker underlines every passive in wavy green to signal that you should try to get rid of it. That overinterpretation is part of the damage that Strunk and White have unintentionally done.By this logic, the Tate-LaBianca murders are part of the damage that the Beatles did in creating the White Album. Pullum goes further:
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.Pullum again ignores context: Strunk and White do not present these sentences as examples involving the passive voice. Here is the passage preceding these sentences in The Elements of Style:
The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.The three examples that Pullum cites as mistakes all have sentences with forms of to be, all then revised with active verbs. Pullum here is misreading the plain sense of the text.
What Pullum says of The Elements of Style — "The treatment of the passive is not an isolated slip. It is typical" — might be said of "Fifty Years of Stupid Grammar Advice": Pullum's treatment of "Use the active voice" is not an isolated slip. It is typical. Pullum consistently decontextualizes Strunk and White's recommendations, turning them into commandments that offer no real guidance.
I'll leave most of Pullum's other points for you, reader, to consider. They involve a fair amount of harumphing and, as Matt Thomas points out, at least one missed joke. And citing "classic texts," as Pullum does, as guides to usage can be tricky. Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Lucy Maud Montgomery give us one picture of the language. Laurence Sterne and James Joyce would give us another.
In a comment on an earlier post about Strunk and White and a sentence from the New York Times, I wrote that "I've long thought that many of Strunk and White's precepts ('Omit needless words') are less than helpful to a developing writer." Looking back at The Elements of Style, which I hadn't read in years, has made me rethink that comment.
Last week on NPR's Talk of the Nation, Geoffrey Pullum claimed that Strunk and White prohibit the use of adjectives or adverbs. Host Neal Conan let the claim go unquestioned. I've written about it here: Hardly (adverb) convincing (adjective).
A sampling of other comentary: More on Pullum, Strunk, White.
On Strunk and White's mistakes: Strunk and White and wit.
A final word on Strunk and White: The Elements of Style, one more time.