Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pullum on Strunk and White

[Welcome, Daring Fireball readers.]

[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't s 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" prefaces 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.

comments: 44

Slywy said...

I've found that anything that makes me think about writing and makes me re-examine how something is written (whether my own work or something I'm editing) is invaluable. But I take comfort that no one will remember this harumphing guy in 10 minutes, anyway. :)

Anonymous said...

Great piece! I've always loved S&W, mainly because I'm a Cornellian. But it's packed with wit and sarcasm that make it a pleasure refer to.

Anonymous said...

You are ignoring the many, many stupid rules that are presented exactly as such in Strunk and White. For instance, not to use "people" as the plural of person, which is a suggestion totally without merit, ungrounded in history or logic.

It is true that Strunk and White contains some valuable writing advice. But it contains even more contextless "rules." It is, overall, a mediocre and overrated book.

Jessi Hance said...

I love the S&W book not only for its usefulness, but for its wonderful writing. If I could ever write anything half as good, I could die happy.

What's-his-name is a joykiller. See, I've already forgotten his name.

Sean Coffee said...

I submit that "omit needles words" is perfect advice. It addresses a fundamental truth about the first draft of any sentence: it's probably too long. Pullam may be a "qualified" grammarian, but he's a shallow, sloppy reader.

Rick Cook said...

It's not just techies who value Strunk and White. Working writers in fiction and non-fiction find the work invaluable.

For my money (having published seven novels, a handful of short stories and literally thousands of magazine type articles) Strunk and White is the best guide to good writing I've ever seen.

--Rick Cook

Unknown said...

I appreciate Michael Leddy's thoughtful defense of Strunk & White (S&W). He is right, of course, that I left out lots of context: I had only 2400 words to work in. I just hoped that what I had left out mostly fell in the scope of "Omit needless words." I think the most substantive thing Michael says is about the four paired examples that led me to say that they don't seem to know passives from actives. Michael notes that when giving the four example pairs, they don't actually say you should avoid "passive clauses such as the following". They talk about avoiding "some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard." So they could have a broader class of "perfunctory" expressions in mind. Michael's point does need an answer. And here it is. The problem for Michael is that S&W are talking about "substituting a transitive in the active voice" for the examples that they give in the left hand column. The only clauses that are not in the active voice are the ones in the passive voice. The two terms form a binary system: the voice of a clause is active or passive. No third choice. So given that their whole section is about using the active voice (which means not using the passive voice), and they open up with a passive (malignly chosen to sound bad), and go on talking about passives for a while, and then talk about replacing the four left-hand examples by alternatives "in the active voice", the inference that they are confused about which clauses are passive clauses is overwhelming. The inference might nonetheless be wrong, I suppose; anything is possible (we can't find out now). But one thing I'm not wrong about is that dozens of writing instructors have repeated these examples in their own materials on why the passive is bad. Educated Americans are disastrously confused on this issue, as I have shown on Language Log many times. I the blame must lie with the remarks of S&W at least in part. Perhaps they weren't actually ignorant enough to think that There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground is a passive clause. But what they said certainly makes it look that way. ---Geoff Pullum

Derek said...

Oh hell. Strunk & White helped kick my writing in the butt, so I could make a living with it. Even if Pullum were right, isolated advice to "omit needless words" (for example) would still make us look at our sentences and think: could they be clearer and more efficient?

Who cares if S&W were skilled gramarrians? Their little book is written to be read quickly and easily, and so that readers can apply its precepts to become better writers. And they do, grammatical theory be damned.

I think Pullum has spent too much time studying and teaching English, and not enough writing clearly to normal people. So in this instance, he's full of crap.

Walter Underwood said...

Strunk and White is pithy, but it really is a mish-mash of useful and mistaken advice.

For a taste of useful advice, how about the description of when to use passive voice in Joe Williams "Style: Toward Clarity and Grace". Short version: go from known information to new, and when the object of the sentence is known and the subject is new, use the passive voice.

Now, isn't that clearer than the mismatched maxim, explanation, and examples in Strunk and White?

For the same price as Strunk and White, get Williams.

Asher said...

Pullum clearly doesn't understand what it means to "omit needless words." He may be an expert on the English language, but he's not much of a writer.

James said...

I had to work quite hard to understand Mr Pullen's comment. He does not seem to write as well or as clearly as E.B, White, or indeed George Orwell. On the whole I think I prefer to follow the advice of these two masters of their craft, rather than the worthy pedant.

Todd R said...

As a big fan of both John Gruber (whose site directed me here) and the Pullum/Liberman duo, it's been interesting to observe both views of the venerable Strunk & White. I'm almost sad that two writers I enjoy so much are in such disagreement, even though I think they see S&W in completely different ways and as such aren't even arguing about the same thing.

It's true that S&W have a larger fanbase that Pullum and Liberman, but then they've had a 50 year head start. But dismissing the latter as just a pair of grumpy academics is a bit unfair; they have a decent following on the web and an enjoyable and informative book, and are anything but careless readers. They may be too careful, in fact, but that's academia for you.

If you bother to read the writing of Pullum and Liberman (go on, I dare you) you realize that their big beef here is with the people who promulgate invented rules of English grammar and usage. After listening to too many lectures on grammatical rules found in no reputable guides I find them a breath of fresh air and enjoy the release from the tyranny of the tongue-clucking pseudo-grammarians. They do have a lot of ire for the beloved S&W because they view "The Elements of Style" as a source of unfortunate mis-education, and I think that's unfortunately turning off S&W fans who might also appreciate freedom from many usage hobgoblins.

For the record, I think there's value in S&W. It's short and is a good start for its intended audience of beginners, and also a good reminder for experienced writers, but I like Williams's work even more. I'm sure I'll be roundly abused for saying so, but you should give "Style: Toward Clarity and Grace" a try rather than just condemning it because you love S&W so much. I think Williams, Pullum, and Liberman are all mainly concerned that people be clear when they write, a goal that they surely share with Strunk and White; I just think that Pullum et al are just less concerned that we follow every linguistic fetish in order to do so.

Matt Thomas said...

I read Williams's Style: Toward Clarity and Grace once. Ironically, I found it lacking both clarity and grace, but that's just me. (Same goes for Jacques Barzun's Simple & Direct, which is neither simple nor direct.) I would, however, like to second Michael Leddy's 2005 recommendation of the The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing. Next to William Zinsser's Writing Well (and the aforementioned Elements of Style), it's the best book on writing I know of, whether you're a college student or not.

T. said...

Matt Thomas beat me to it: Zinsser's On Writing Well is THE BEST writing guide I know. Zinsser also enjoins writers to omit needless words; that may be the best advice any writer could get. My favorite expression of that idea is in the film A River Runs Through It, when the dad goes through draft after draft of a son's composition, each time offering only one piece of feedback: "Half as long."

john said...

Doesn't the very fact that some many people who are not dummies find Stunk and White to be a dud, indicate that The Elements of Style fails as an example of clear writing itself?

I am one of the people who has criticized S&W. There is no "context" in which the book's mistaken admonition to not use "people" as the plural of "person" can be understood: the book is simply wrong on the point.

There are other examples where S&W are wrong with a lot of company: condemnation of the use of "hopefully" as an indicator of the speaker's attitude, for instance. ("Hopefully, he will come" is just as right as "Luckily, he will come." "Hopefully" never meant "full of hope.")

Unknown said...

Yep, I wanted to add Zinsser as well. His chapter "On Simplicity" is one of the first pieces I give my fresh comp students to emphasize clarity as well as to omit needless words.
R. Klass, PhD

Anonymous said...

One could sum up: The Elements of Style is about writing, not grammar; what's good, not what's right.

Greg Turner said...

One of my first fiction teachers passed on to me the best rule for writing I've ever heard: "Learn to play your instruments; then get sexy." He attributed the quote to Debbie Harry.

He also had us read Strunk and White. To this day I refuse to place minimum word counts on student papers. Immediately they fall to the passive voice for the extra words instead of concentrating on content.

Kevin S. said...

john wrote:

" 'Hopefully' never meant 'full of hope.')".

John, with all due respect, you're as full of it as Pullum and the rest of Language Log crowd on this point. Note the following, from the Oxford English Dictionary:

"hopefully, adv.

1. In a hopeful manner; with a feeling of hope; with ground for hope, promisingly.

a 1639 WOTTON Life Dk. Buckh. in Reliq. (1672) 237 He left all his female kindred..either matched with peers of the realm actually, or hopefully with earls' sons and heirs. 1846 H. ROGERS Ess. (1860) I. 171 The limits within which the human understanding can hopefully speculate. Mod. He set to work hopefully.

2. It is hoped (that); let us hope. (Cf. G. hoffentlich it is to be hoped.) orig. U.S. (Avoided by many writers.)

1932 N.Y. Times Book Rev. 24 Jan. 11/4 He would create an expert commission..to consist of ex-Presidents and a selected list of ex-Governors, hopefully not including Pa and Ma Ferguson". [other later examples omitted]

So, the OED does admit the use of "hopefully" to mean "I hope", or "one hopes", but it lists the usage championed by such authors as Strunk & White, which means "full of hope", first. It also notes that this usage dates from 1639.

By contrast, the first (mis)use of "hopefully" to mean "I hope" dates only from 1932. The OED even observes that the use of "hopefully" that you defend is of American origin, and that many writers avoid this usage.

john said...

You are correct that "full of hope" is a meaning of "hopefully"-- I meant to convey that the use of "hopefully" at the beginning of a sentence has always, based on the examples I've seen, been a totally standard sentence adverb.

Question: *Why* should "hopefully" not be used as an adverb along the lines of the dozens of others that express the speaker's attitude?

And note Webster:

"In the 1960s the second sense of hopefully, which dates to the early 18th century and had been in fairly widespread use since at least the 1930s, underwent a surge in popularity. A surge of criticism followed in reaction, but the criticism took no account of the grammar of adverbs. Hopefully in its second sense is a member of a class of adverbs known as disjuncts. Disjuncts serve as a means by which the author or speaker can comment directly to the reader or hearer usually on the content of the sentence to which they are attached. Many other adverbs (as interestingly, frankly, clearly, luckily, unfortunately) are similarly used; most are so ordinary as to excite no comment or interest whatsoever. The second sense of hopefully is entirely standard."

The anti-Strunkists don't say that the book is a tissue of lies; just that it is full of half-baked and questionable ideas. Even if you disagree on "hopefully," pointing out that it has some good points doesn't negate garbage like "You can't have one people!".

Anonymous said...

Great response to Pullum's straw-man bloviations. He has missed the point of EOS for years. It's a forest/trees problem.

john said...

Okay, this is my last post. Note S&W on "shall/will." They say that one is for the first person, the other for the second and third. That's nonsense. That's not even the "obligation vs. futurity" distinction that Fowler et al. liked to pretend existed.

You're going to want to say "Oh, they're just offering style tips, not setting down grammatical rules." But they use the word "requires." It sure sounds like they've promulgating rules to me.

Dan said...

I actually like the injunction to use "persons" instead of "people," although it is clearly a matter of Strunk's personal taste when he wrote it in 1918 and is not a binding commandment made on the reader of "The Elements of Style." It is entertaining to read the authors' quirks, and no doubt a writer and reader who keeps in practice will find their own words or phrases that irritate them.

Jessica said...

I think blog writing is closer to speech than being grammatically correct.
But being pithy certainly helps

AA4LR said...

My copy of Strunk and White occupies a dear place in my heart. My English teacher gave me a copy as a graduation gift.

Odd that the most useful rule in the entire book comes from the prologue - rule #0 as it were - to omit needless words. I can't remember any of the other specific rules from 30 years ago, although I have practiced many of them over time -- such as avoiding sentences using forms of "to be".

Strunk and White is not perfect, nor complete, nor should it be the sole vehicle for educating students about English grammar. But it remains a useful tool for developing good writing.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks to everyone who's taken the time to read and comment on this post, and to John Gruber, who linked to it on Daring Fireball, sending many readers my way. (This post has had 7,000+ visits in the past thirty hours.)

I've never been a big fan of Strunk and White. But reading Geoffrey Pullum's Chronicle piece and going back to The Elements of Style (for the first time in perhaps twenty years) made me revise my sense of the book. I was surprised to see that the unhelpful injunctions I remembered were in fact accompanied by useful explanations and examples. Geoff Pullum doesn't acknowledge that to be the case and is arguing, as I see it, against a straw man (or men).

About actives and passives: Strunk and White's section heading, "Use the active voice," establishes a context for what follows. First, some examples with active and passive forms. Then, a shift to something else, examples with "a transitive in the active voice" (my emphasis). Those examples concern not active v. passive but transitive v. intransitive, transitive v. to be.

The argument that "active" must mean "not passive" (which Prof. Pullum has offered elsewhere in response to comment on his piece) isn't convincing to me: I take "a transitive in the active voice" to mean, first of all, a transitive, not intransitive, verb. And Strunk and White do slip up there: "The cock's crow came at dawn" has no transitive verb. Whether that slip-up really compromises The Elements of Style is a decision for the reader to make.

What I most appreciate about the comments above is that they form a pretty civil and thoughtful conversation about the possible roles of guidebooks and rules and maxims in writing. Some rules are arbitrary and ill-conceived: I teach many students who have been told never to use the word I, never to begin a sentence with and or but. I like to offer my students strategies that I hope make more sense — for instance, to avoid the word this by itself and rely upon nouns. There are many examples of decent prose that include this by itself. But college students can give their writing far greater energy and precision by avoiding this alone.

My favorite book in teaching writing is Michael Harvey's The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing, which I think is more helpful than Strunk and White to a writer who wants to make better sentences and paragraphs. I remember some time ago liking Claire Cook's Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing, though it might be described as the Kama Sutra of writing guides — for experts only.

Kangarara said...

Not sure where I read this (long ago) - might have been Bradbury, might have been King (wordprocessor of the gods-ish?) but I recall the 'adjective magnet'.

The writer would pass the magnet over his work, and all the superfluous adjectives and adverbs would be sucked up into the magnet, leaving behind far more concise, compelling text.

If S&W's 'omit needless words' does nothing more than remind a writer to ask herself whether that qualifier adds anything or not (and I'm looking at you, Doctorow), then the book should be required reading for anyone who has access to a keyboard.

Kangarara said...

Curiously, the only reference for "Adjective Magnet" I can find is a Google books Look Inside:


Apparently that particular science fiction story was exclusive in distribution.

Neil said...

The problem with the opinions of many about the rights and wrongs of English grammar is the fact that few critics have any substantial familiarity with Latin grammar. Understand Latin grammar, and English grammar makes sense, in a patchwork quilt sort-of-way. S&W's emphasis on the active voice has been taken as an absolute rule, not as the corrective measure as it was intended against the passivity in English writing inherited from Latin. As such, most modern writing has become sterile, and lacking in emotional dynamics. In music, you must have harmonic tension and release for good musical "storytelling", and to me, the passive voice is the semantic equivalent of harmonic tension, that should be eventually satisfied by strong active language at the point of greatest emphasis. S&W weren't wrong about preferring active to passive writing, but they have been grossly misinterpreted over the years.

The same argument could be made for their prescription on "split infinitives". They didn't prohibit it, just tried to mitigate unnecessary usage, and anyone who understands Latin should understand that "To bodly go" is just as valid a construction as "the good shepherd", which "splits" the nominative. Nobody complains about splitting the nominative, and rightly so, because the article "the" (or "a") isn't the noun itself, it is merely a particle. In the same way, the word "to" isn't the verb itself, it is just a marker denoting that the next word is a verb.

Given that most young kids graduating from high school can hardly construct a sentence anymore, I'd still recommend S&W. Better yet, I'd recommend Latin from 4th or 5th grade through high school.

Anonymous said...

I haven't actually read S&W, but I was introduced to Revising Business Prose" by "Richard A. Lanham", and sounds like similar advice to be direct, avoid excessive words for a given thought and so on.

This is the book that opened my eyes and has led to a clarity of writing whose absence I find muddling in others' work.

John Palkovic said...

"Omit needless words" is circular and vague. If I know it's needless, I've already left it out. One might as well simply say "revise" or "befriend a good editor." If one is a decent writer, one does not need S&W. If that is not the case, I don't think S&W will create an overnight sensation.

Can any of the S&W fans cite a popular or bestselling author who cites S&W as a strong influence? I am not aware of any such authors. It sure as hell was not David Foster Wallace.

Unknown said...

Michael Leddy says: "What I most appreciate about the comments above is that they form a pretty civil and thoughtful conversation about the possible roles of guidebooks and rules and maxims in writing." I'm baffled. Have we been looking at the same comments?

I was just amazed at some of the superficiality, sloppiness, and abuse that I saw. I think the level of discourse seen in some of these comments fails to do justice to Michael's thoughtful critiques. A number of the comments are knee-jerk insults tossed out by people who pretend to love and cherish The Elements of Style but actually aren't even prepared to defend the elements of spelling.

-- Sean Coffee calls me "a shallow, sloppy reader", but I can read deeply enough to see that he misspelled my name as "Pullam" and also misspelled the crucial word "needless" ("Omit needles words", he wrote).

-- Jessi Hance loves Elements for its "wonderful writing" (not the focus of my article at all), and couldn't even be bothered to scroll up and see what my name was, so I just get called "What's-his-name".

--Rick Cook commits a wonderful dangling-participle violation ("having published seven novels, ... Strunk and White is the best guide to good writing I've ever seen"), exactly as Strunk and White warn you not to.

-- Derek says I'm "full of crap", and although he spells "crap" very nicely, he can't spell "grammarian", and he drags in the red herring of "grammatical theory", which I never mentioned.

-- James calls me a "pedant" and calls me "Mr Pullen" as if to dare me to be pedantic enough to object.

This is a civil and thoughtful conversation? It looks to me like casual insult-slinging by people who refuse to look at evidence.

My article isn't just a series of insults. I know I called the advice in the book "stupid", but a provocative title was something of a necessity if the book's millions of complacent fans were to take any notice. But after that insulting headline I gave evidence of the ways in which the book is wrong.

Michael Leddy agrees with me about at least some of it. Although he says (quite unjustifiably) that I am attacking straw men, we both agree that something is very wrong with the list of four sentences that Strunk and White say are bad and should be replaced by sentences with "a transitive in the active voice." Three of the four allegedly bad sentences are already active (though the verbs happen not to be transitive), and one of the four recommended transitive active replacements is not transitive. The evidence shows that neither Strunk nor White was very good at describing syntax accurately.

Take agreement with none as another example. S&W say flatly that None of us are perfect is incorrect. I show with hard evidence that the literature of Strunk's day simply doesn't support that claim; he was wrong about the literary use of the language that Cornell had hired him to teach.

Or take the mythical which / that rule. Look at any book in English before about 1900 and see whether you find restrictive relative clauses beginning with which. You do. It is found even in Strunk's writing. White added a paragraph about this alleged rule. He was just mistaken: there never was a time when this was a correct generalization about how English was used. (Unfortunately a different generalization is now true: copy editors regularly frighten American authors into changing which to that for no good reason.)

When I make a charge against S&W, I cite the actual text (not a straw text of my own devising), I supply evidence, I point to ways in which you can gather more evidence, and I offer an argument based on the evidence. The critics above who sling the insults around offer no evidence or argument at all. You must decide who to believe. --Geoff Pullum

Michael Leddy said...

@John P: Yes, "Omit needless words" is unhelpful on its own, as I wrote in my post: "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." Have many writers benefited from encouragement to make their writing leaner? I'd say so. Are Strunk and White offering advice for the creation of literature? No. (The back cover of my paperback carries a recommendation from Telephone Engineer & Management.)

@Geoff Pullum: I should've said that some of the comments above formed a pretty civil discussion about guidebooks, rules, and maxims.

I'll stand by what I've argued in my post: that to reduce The Elements of Style to precepts without context or explanation is to misrepresent the book. That so many people think of the book as precepts alone (I too was in that group) says more about the book's reception than about Strunk and White's work. Even if we disagree about the value of Strunk and White's book, I think we can agree that it would be a good thing for people to examine what's there before deciding whether it's useful.

Joe Clark said...

Sorry; I’m with Pullum.

Christopher Fahey said...

Arguing over the correctness of Strunk and White's writing advice is like arguing over whether hip-hop is more "correct" than rock-n-roll.

The book is about *style*. Style exists in a separate dimension from grammar. Style is the difference between a denim jacket and a sportcoat, the difference between Picasso and Matisse. Style is a matter of taste, aesthetics.

To my mind, S&W's sense of writing style is fantastic. But plenty of writers I admire work in styles quite different from the style system S&W advocate.

Context is important, too: When writing for oration or rhetorical effect, for example, where an author might want to save his or her point until the end of a rhetorical buildup, the passive voice can be extremely powerful.

(The previous sentence is a humble example of this: If I began the sentence with "The passive voice", I would have not evoked the image of a public orator, nor would I have achieved the mildly-surprising effect of the final point.)

That said, most of the genuinely *bad* writing I've ever read -- writing that by any empirical measure communicates poorly -- tends to fail precisely because the writer failed to consider any style system at all. These writers simply put down what they think, cobbling together phrases and constructions they've heard from other places into a stylistic mess. They may be quite conscious of grammar even as they engage in unconscious stylistic anarchy. Bad writers desperately need some stylistic framework to help give coherence to their work. IMHO, Strunk & White's offers a good system: a powerful set of tips, tricks, and tools for writers to improve the clarity and precision of their work.

Consider, again, clothing. The modern men's suit -- jacket, slacks, shirt, and tie -- emerged a little over a century ago, and has changed little since. Sure, there have been fluctuations in colors, materials, lapel-sizes, and accessories. But the basic underlying style itself has not changed in a century. Men, in general, no longer wear leggings, decorative collars, tails, codpieces, or knee-high boots. Advising a professional male to own and wear a modern men's suit is hardly bad advice. But none of this implies that wearing jeans and a t-shirt is inherently wrong any more than wearing a tuxedo, top-hat, and tails is inherently wrong. They're just other styles that can be highly effective in their contexts. But for some contexts -- appearing in court, going to weddings and funerals, applying for certain kinds of jobs, meeting the President -- wearing a suit is simply good advice.

When choosing a particular suit, there are lots of styles to select from even within the narrow range of what are considered "basic" suits. Some are expensive, some not. But owning a simple black or gray suit with not-too-wide but not-too-narrow lapels, not-too-pronounced pleats, not-too-big shoulders, tailored to the wearer's body, is, in today's sartorial stylistic milieu, about the best fashion advice anyone can give a Western man. Where you go from there -- pinstripes, jacketless, an expressive tie, whatever -- is up to you. If you want to dress in leather pants and a tank top, more power to you, and good luck.

Strunk & White are the men's suit (or, for women, the little black dress) of writing.

Michael Leddy said...

Christopher, thanks for sharing this thoughtful and persuasive analogy here. I like your emphasis on pragmatism: "wearing a suit is simply good advice."

I have nothing against little black dresses, but for women's clothing, would "business suit" be a better analogy?

Mark said...

John P., you asked for well-known writers who cite S&W as a strong influence. Here are a few: Frank McCourt, Susan Orlean, Dave Barry, Stephen King, Roy Blount Jr., Horton Foote, Richard Ford, Robert Pinsky, Nicholson Baker. It's obvious there's a great deal of value in EOS that simply escapes Pullum and his cohort. I think I'll side with the writers on this one.

Vadis said...

Responding to Geoff Pullum's comments is rather difficult, because Mr. Pullum's response is not always focused on its target. For instance, he spends a good deal of time fretting about casual misspellings in the comments. If Mr. Pullum has spent any amount of time in the comments sections of blogs, he must have become aware that the conditions under which the comments are written and edited are not conducive to the highest standards of writing. Why, a person writing quickly might come up with an odd, apparently incomprehensible sentence like "I the blame must lie with the remarks of S&W at least in part." And who wrote that? Why, I believe it was Mr. Pullum. But there are enough shattered panes in this glass house that it seems unwise to throw more stones.

But back to the meat of Mr. Pullum's discourse. He writes:

"They talk about avoiding "some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard." So they could have a broader class of "perfunctory" expressions in mind. Michael's point does need an answer. And here it is. The problem for Michael is that S&W are talking about "substituting a transitive in the active voice" for the examples that they give in the left hand column. The only clauses that are not in the active voice are the ones in the passive voice. The two terms form a binary system: the voice of a clause is active or passive. No third choice. So given that their whole section is about using the active voice (which means not using the passive voice), and they open up with a passive (malignly chosen to sound bad), and go on talking about passives for a while, and then talk about replacing the four left-hand examples by alternatives "in the active voice", the inference that they are confused about which clauses are passive clauses is overwhelming."

It seems to me far from overwhelming. If the entire passage is read with the assumption that White knew the difference between active and passive voice in English; that he expected readers of the manual to know the same thing; and that he was providing a critique of stylistic variants, not a lesson in grammar, the whole becomes quite clear.

Pullum divides up a single sentence of White's into two parts: "some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard" and "substituting a transitive in the active voice", while declaring that "S&W" "talk about" the one, and then the other. Why not quote the entire sentence? It is:

"Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively or emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard."

Pullum tries to explain his criticism: "The only clauses that are not in the active voice are the ones in the passive voice. The two terms form a binary system: the voice of a clause is active or passive. No third choice."

This, while fair enough (for English; Pullum ought to be aware that languages such as ancient Greek have a three-voice system, active, middle, and passive) turns out to be strikingly irrelevant to what White actually wrote. White suggests "substituting a transitive in the active voice" for "some such perfunctory expression". He says nothing about what the voice of the perfunctory expression has to be; and there is absolutely no reason one cannot substitute one active verb for another active verb.

It's true that White has slipped by saying "transitive". What he probably meant was what English teachers call an "action verb", i.e., verbs that are not copulæ or auxiliaries. This is an error, but given that he was not discussing transitivity, a somewhat trivial one.

Pullum goes on "So given that... they open up with a passive (malignly chosen to sound bad)". I have no idea what Pullum means here. I certainly see no malignity. Perhaps he has a different text of the Elements than I do. In my copy, the first sentence in section 14 is "I shall always remember my first visit to Boston." This is in active voice. Perhaps Pullum means the first sentence in the section with examples? But no, that sentence is "There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground." That sentence is also in the active voice. If I were uncharitable, I might suggest that Pullum is confused about active and passive himself! However, I think that conclusion unlikely; as unlikely as the conclusion that Strunk or White were ignorant of the difference.

It's evident from the earlier examples in section 14 that White knows exactly what a passive construction is. He compares "I shall always remember" with "will always be remembered by me"; "have little esteem for" with "are little esteemed". Having done this, he doesn't think the point worthy of much further elaboration, and goes on to slip in a stylistic generalization about the creation of "lively and emphatic" sentences. This is not entirely relevant to the point of the section, as White seems to have been uncomfortably aware, so he drops here and there a reference to "active voice", which is really neither here nor there to his point, but does seem to have deeply confused Mr. Pullum.

The examples White uses, taken on their own merits, are self-explanatory. "There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground" is contrasted with "Dead leaves covered the ground". The latter is certainly punchier stylistically, not just for its brevity, but because it puts the "dead leaves" in the subject position, replacing the pronoun "there", and makes the main verb "covered", an action verb, instead of the copula "were".

"At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard" is contrasted with "The cock's crow came with dawn". These two sentences are admittedly not precisely parallel (the latter is not, in my opinion, very strong, despite its brevity), but what White is trying to do here is obvious; using the direct action verb "came" instead of the rather wishy-washy auxiliary "could". The passive voice is really a secondary problem in the sentence -- one wonders who might have heard the rooster, and whether they did or not, and if not, why not. The sentence really deserves a subject (though the identity of the subject depends on the larger context) -- e.g., "she heard the rooster's call at dawn".

"The reason he left college was that his health became impaired" is contrasted with "Failing health compelled him to leave college". Once again, White substitutes an action verb, "compel" for a copula, "was". "Compel" is perhaps a weaker word now than it was in White's time; it has an antiseptic, clinical feel to it that seems out of place in this sentence. "Forced him to" or "made him" seem more natural, and stronger, than "compelled him to". "Failing health" is also a rather distant-sounding, and perhaps archaic expression. In the 21st century, we may perhaps be allowed to write "He left college because he was sick."

"It was not long before he was very sorry that he had said what he had" is contrasted with "He soon repented his words". The contrast is between the verb "repent" and the copula "was"; there are two "was"es in the first, rather convoluted sentence, and the one in the main clause doesn't do more than set the time ("not long before") rather than conveying the main action (which is in a subordinate clause).

I think, however, that "repented his words" must have been archaic even in 1959; and it's not at all clear that "repent" is a stronger expression than "be sorry", even though contains no copula. English contains many expressions like "be sorry" which might well be considered two-part verbs instead of combinations of copula and adjective, and many of them are much more natural, and stronger in expression, than their one-word Latinate counterparts.

It's also not clear that it's inadmissible to put the emphasis on some apparently secondary part of the sentence, like the time elapsing between the fellow speaking his repentance. Maybe, in context, it deserves emphasis; maybe, in just that period, we find that a crucial emotional change has taken place, if not in the speaker, then in the person spoken to. In such a case, it might be advisable to front the time-reference, e.g.: "Only a minute elapsed before he regretted what he had said." But I can imagine that White thought such considerations (if he thought of them at all) to be too complex for the students he expected to be reading the text.

In sum, it's evident from the examples that White is not contrasting actives and passives, but constructions using action verbs with constructions using copulae and auxiliaries. I do not see White saying, or implying, that such constructions are grammatically passive -- only that they are "tame".

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Vadis, for backing me up on the transitive-in-the-active-voice question and offering such a careful reading of the passage.

Unknown said...

Very thought-provoking post, Michael. Now, here's something for you to think about:

In the section where S&W violated their own advice and committed the error that they were warning their readers about, YOU say that they obviously must have written that section incorrectly ON PURPOSE and meant it as A JOKE--?

OK--that is certainly a possibility. But where is your evidence for such a conclusion? Did they do anything like that anywhere else in their book? Did they say, or even hint at the possibility, that they meant that construction to be taken as a joke?

You can't just wave off an apparent error in S&W's writing by deciding on your own authority that they meant it as a joke. You can't just declare that it's a joke. There must be some evidence to allow such a conclusion.

I don't see any justification for taking S&W's construction at that location as anything but what it appears to be: A dunder-headed Strunken mistake that White failed to catch, preserved by successive generations of equally incompetent hands-off editors.

I also agree with the comment above regarding Williams's Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, a book that is vastly superior in every respect to S&W. This is the book that teachers ought to be using if they want their students to learn how to write well--not S&W.

Dr. Pullum didn't take his criticisms out of context, nor did he exaggerate. If anything, he was overly gentle. S&W perpetuates a 150-year-old way of writing and speaking that people today can't, and don't need to, benefit from. Worst of all, it represents an approach to writing pedagogy that promises expertise without effort--"everything one needs to know about writing in one slim volume."

If it was that easy to become a good writer, there would be a lot more good writers in the world--and they wouldn't need a book like S&W to teach them how. S&W perpetrates a cruel hoax by promising what it doesn't deliver--writing expertise in a nutshell. Educated teachers should rebel against this unethical activity, rather than participate in it.

Michael Leddy said...

The Elements of Style has many touches of wit. "Do not overwrite": the paragraph that follows seems hilariously overwritten. "Do not overstate": the claim that follows is broadly exaggerated. "Avoid the use of qualifiers": the explanatory sentences make conspicuous use of such words. One could take such passages as evidence of cluelessness or as evidence of wit. I think wit's the better choice.

Geoffrey Pullum's discussion of The Elements of Style detaches statements from context to render them ridiculous. Here's one that's not in his Chronicle piece: in his recent appearance on NPR's Talk of the Nation, he says that Strunk and White prohibit the use of adjectives and adverbs. There is of course no evidence for such a claim, unless you separate the Strunk and White sentence "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs" from what follows it in the book (as Pullum does). Elsewhere Pullum pronounces White a hypocrite for using adjectives in his writing. Say what?! Such claims about the book and about White are simply unconvincing.

I think that the value of The Elements of Style is that it can serve as an inspiration that works over time, encouraging its reader to write with care. It works, I'd say, by helping its reader to form habits of attention when writing. Other books can offer the same sort of inspiration. (The one that I think most helpful to students is Michael Harvey's The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing.) I know of no one teaching college English who uses The Elements — handbooks are now the thing. They have many virtues, but I don't think they offer inspiration.

Since you put a question to me, Tim, let me put a couple to you: where does The Elements promise "expertise without effort"? Near the beginning of the Elements chapter on style, White says that "Writing is, for most, laborious and slow." He describes the writer cultivating patience, waiting for something to show up. Certainly Roger Angell's description of White struggling with his weekly New Yorker piece suggests great effort. It's in the foreword to the 4th edition of The Elements. On the first page of that foreword, the first page of text following the table of contents, are these words: "Writing is hard."

And what's the source of the characterization "everything one needs to know about writing in one slim volume"? I'm unable to find it online.

Michael Leddy said...

I'd like to revise one sentence in the previous comment.

I think that the value of The Elements of Style is that it can serve as an inspiration that works over time, encouraging its reader to write with care.

The Elements of Style might be most useful as an abiding inspiration to write with care.

Unknown said...

Good questions, Michael. By using quotation marks, I gave the impression that I was quoting S&W. I should have made it clear that I was characterizing what I have seen and heard as prevailing attitudes about S&W by people who use it and promote it.

In fact, I recently heard an individual speak to an audience of people about S&W by saying, "Everything you need to know about writing is in this little book." That was what I was referring to--"an approach to writing pedagogy" that comes from those who use S&W, not necessarily from S&W itself.

While you may not know of anyone teaching college English who uses S&W, I know several--and I suspect that there are many, many more. If S&W was not immensely popular, why would it be having a 50th-anniversary reissue edition? It has sold more than 10 million copies and has remained in print for 50 years.

Well, one more thing--you might be right about the joking nature of some of S&W's sections, but I can't see it. Your claim is that they would state a principle, and then in the next section they would deliberately violate the principle "as evidence of wit," but without telling the reader. They would just hope that everyone catches the joke and realizes that they haven't really written the section badly; they're just being witty.

I just can't see that as a valid argument.

Michael Leddy said...

"In fact, I recently heard an individual speak to an audience of people about S&W by saying, 'Everything you need to know about writing is in this little book.'"

Tim, on this point we can agree — such a claim is dumb, in many ways.

"Your claim is that they would state a principle, and then in the next section they would deliberately violate the principle 'as evidence of wit,' but without telling the reader."

I was referring to passages that immediately follow precepts (within sections). The sentences that explain "Do not overstate" are a matter of ridiculous overstatement. The sentences that explain "Avoid the use of qualifiers" say this: "Rather, very, little, pretty — these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words. The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one, and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then."

It's safe to say that that's a joke.

What bothers me with Geoffrey Pullum's take is that assuming Strunk and White's incompetence leads again and again to misreadings and mischaracterizations (a nasty hermeneutic circle). Pullum can't get beyond his sense of the whole as "stupid" (his word to describe the book). Pullum's claim that Strunk and White prohibit adjectives and adverbs is a strong example of that tendency. I'll note that Pullum has twice commented on this post, but not on my post about the adjective/adverb claim. What he says about Strunk and White and adjectives and adverbs is of course contradicted by the text.

I think The Elements is a much more helpful book than Pullum allows. But is it, to paraphrase Tom Waits, a friend, a companion, the only product you will ever need? No.