Monday, May 4, 2009

More on Pullum, Strunk, White

Below, a sampling of recent commentary on Geoffrey Pullum's "Fifty Years of Stupid Grammar Advice" and William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White's The Elements of Style. Most of what follows is at least mildly pro-Elements. I haven't been able to find pro-Pullum pieces that do much more than restate his claims as true.

Chad Orzel is pragmatic:

While a slavish adherence to the rules presented in The Elements of Style would have unfortunate results for people who already write well, it would be a clear improvement for most college students. Just an attempt to follow the guidelines in Strunk and White would make most of the lab reports I have to grade dramatically better.

Strunk and White Is Not for You (Uncertain Principles)
Tim Carmody too is pragmatic:
I still think Chapter 5 of Elements, "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused," is pretty solid, and a good starting point for teaching young writers. Here the idea is that a few don'ts (as Ezra Pound would say) often can stop particularly dire barbarisms in their tracks.

Anti-Strunkites (Snarkmarket)
David G. Shrock is skeptical about the damage wrought by Strunk and White:
I agree with Pullum that The Elements of Style should not be the sole resource for learning grammar, but grammar instruction is not the intent of the book. Is it responsible for degrading grammar in America? Pullum does not offer any evidence.

Linguist and Reading Comprehension (Writing for Torre)
John Schwenkler too is skeptical:
"The land of the free in the grip of The Elements of Style,“ Pullum calls us. If only.

Strunk'd (The American Scene)
Charlie Loyd contrasts Strunk-and-White and Pullum by means of fine analogies:
Strunk and White are like expert gardeners. They wrote a very short introduction to gardening and sold it as a gardening book. Gardeners used it to learn about gardening, or, considering just how short it is, as inspiration to think consciously about gardening, and so it started or helped many careers in gardening.

Pullum is like an expert botanist. He reads the gardening book and says "This is absurd! They plant things next to each other that come from different continents. Why prune an apple tree when it grows fine on its own? Their suggestions for crop rotation are a ludicrous simplification of natural interspersal," and so on.

Pullum v. Strunk and White (Env)
And the New York Times is hosting a party, Happy Birthday, Strunk and White! Some party: it's Geoffrey Pullum and four other guests mostly hatin' on The Elements of Style. Pullum leads, repeating the hardly convincing claim that Strunk and White advocate writing without adjectives and adverbs:
Some of the commands would be all but impossible to follow: "Write with nouns and verbs," for example. No one avoids all use of adjectives and adverbs.
Gee, no kidding?

Stephen Dodson: "If people would stop touting it as the Indispensable Book and using it as a weapon, we wouldn’t have to annoy them with our attacks."

Mignon Fogarty ("Grammar Girl"): "Wishing there were hard-and-fast rules doesn’t make it so." (Reading The Elements of Style makes clear that many of its rules are far from firm.)

Patricia T. O’Conner: "much of the grammar and usage advice in the rest of the book is baloney."

Ben Yagoda: "a strange little book."

Mark Garvey, author of Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style (forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in October), has written a response to the Times piece. One good bit re: Pullum:
Professor Pullum writes: "The simplistic don't-do-this, don't-write-that instructions offered in the book would not guarantee good writing if they were obeyed." Guarantee it? Of course not — no more than a knowledge of musical scales can guarantee I will play piano like Horowitz. But scales are the way.

Strunk and White, The Elements of Style (Text Arts)
And finally, the comments on my post Pullum on Strunk and White should be of interest to anyone interested in this debate. This thread seems to get better as it goes on, with a number of readers offering long and thoughtful responses.

The final paragraph of my most recent comment on that post:
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.
Related posts
Strunk and White and wit
The Elements of Style, one more time

comments: 1

JuliaR said...

I learned to write by reading. A lot. Maybe others can't learn by osmosis like I did but I always recommend reading to those who want to learn to writer better. I wonder if it is too late to learn by osmosis if you wait until you are an adult? As to what I recommend, I tell my students to read ANYthing that gets published. By then, it has been through some editing and scrutiny and can't be all that bad. Unfortunately, that doesn't apply to the millions of blogs and other internet writing that is self published without scrutiny. So I tell them if they want to read blogs, I will point them in the right direction for good writing.