Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hardly (adverb) convincing (adjective)

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 in

        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.
Pullum 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.

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.

Related posts
Pullum on Strunk and White
More on Pullum, Strunk, White
Strunk and White and wit
The Elements of Style, one more time

comments: 10

Elaine Fine said...

Pullum's response to Strunk and White's treatise (which is what it is), reminds me of the kinds of literal responses that a lot of musicians have to treatises that explain how to play an instrument or how to sing or play in an appropriate style.

There is often a lot of helpful advice in these musical treatises, but some of the advice is rather dated (like the suggestion that a flute player with a sweaty lip could use some power from his wig to help the instrument stay in place), and is often student-specific or player-specific.

Take the case of J.J. Quantz who wrote the treatise on flute playing which he dedicated to his student Frederick the Great, who was the king of Prussia. In order to get certain musical ideas across to his student, he addressed them as general musical problems, thus saving the King from the embarrassment of being criticized. He also wrote the treatise to instruct other musicians in his court (Quantz's colleagues for life--it was against the law for a musician to leave the King's service) about what they should and should not do according to his own musical aesthetic, using the format of the treatise to avoid personal confrontation or possible insult.

Here's some of Quantz's advice for violists:

"A good violist must shun all extempore additions or embellishments in his part."

"He must play the quavers in an Allegro with a very short bow-stroke, the crotchets, on the other hand, with a somewhat longer one."

These sound like player-specific criticisms to me. But some people take them to be fixed "rules" to be applied to the "correct" performance of baroque music, and some people (like violists) might take issue with Quantz's rules.

Perhaps Strunk and White were responding to adjective-rich, adverb-laden style of a specific writer when they suggested that writing should be built on nouns and verbs rather than on adjectives and adverbs.

Geo-B said...

And writing is rife with writers locked into rules addressed to specific writers. For instance, a high school class is stuck on paragraphs, and many people just make a new paragraph for every sentence. so the exasperated teacher says, for this assignment, no more one-sentence paragraphs. The writer gets to college, raises her hand and says, my teacher told me you can't have a a paragraph with only one sentence. And, do not begin a sentence with "and." Don't use "you" in a paper.
Wben the teacher says, no, that's OK, the student thinks grammar is completely arbitrary.
I've always read Strunk and White as a meditation upon writing, rather than a comprehensive grammar. And, as you've said, I don't know of any classes anywhere who are substituting Strunk and White for an actual handbook.

Slywy said...

I'm starting to feel sorry for someone trying to build a reputation on dismissing a "stupid little book" he doesn't understand. Strange.

Michael Leddy said...

For Elaine: I don't know of a specific target, but Strunk's precepts are strikingly modern (anti-19th-century). From Ezra Pound's "A Few Don'ts": "Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something." The idea of concision in Imagist poetry (dichten = condensare, what Pound at some point saw in a German-Italian dictionary) is surprisingly Strunkian. I can't imagine that's there influence either way, just a shared distaste for the florid.

For Geo-B: I just made a page for an essay assignment that includes a reminder that it's okay to use the word "I."

For Slywy: Pullum's reputation is already made — he's a linguist of great accomplishment. His battle against The Elements is a sideline.

Michael Leddy said...

Oops — I can't imagine that there's influence either way.

Slywy said...

Oh, I see. So he's trying to dismantle it. :)

Eustace Bright said...

I've been enjoying your posts re. Pollum's tirades. Thanks!

Your posts demonstrate that while it may be hip to lambaste old, unpopular works of any subject, whether writing or music or philosophy or politics, etc., with more flair than fairness, the greater pleasure and honor comes from producing a judicious, accurate, and perceptive assessment, especially when well-written. :)

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Joe. I like to think of my blog as a showplace for such assessment. (Kidding!)

If Geoff Pullum stops by to comment on this post, he'll see that I've already noted the spelling of his name here: Pullum. I keep thinking of Don Pullen, the pianist, when I type Pullum.

I had missed an earlier post and didn't quite understand what you were/are doing in Costa Rica. It sounded like fun though. Now I understand. Have a safe trip back!

Kevin S. said...

"His battle against The Elements is a sideline."

Oh, really? If so, then it is a "sideline" that has occupied a great deal of his time and effort over the years. Even the most cursory research shows that Pullum's irrational and obsessive hatred of Strunk & White is of long standing. It also certainly gets his name into journalistic print and his voice on the radio a lot more frequently than do discussions of his grammar book/doorstop, and that, I think, is Slywy's point.

Michael Leddy said...

Kevin, I think that you and I agree about these matters. But yes, a sideline, and yes, one of long standing.

If Pullum were just some guy hating on The Elements of Style, he wouldn't get a hearing in the Chronicle. His reputation as a linguist isn't founded on his comments on Strunk and White; his reputation is what makes it possible for him to speak to a large audience. And his book, as he has noted several times, is hardly competing with Strunk and White's.

But I share your perspective — I think Pullum's animosity to this book — his endless use of epithets like "stupid" and "vile," his suggestion that the pages be put to use in an outhouse — is beyond any reasoned response. It's amusing to listen to the NPR interview, if you haven't yet — there he's all moderation, and full of concern for the students whose writing lives are being ruined by Strunk and White.