Monday, January 10, 2011

Zimmer on Strunk and White

Ben Zimmer, who writes the “On Language” column for the New York Times, answers an interviewer’s question:

Q. Your colleague Geoff Pullum, at Language Log, has made it his personal goal to tear down Strunk and White. What’s wrong with The Elements of Style?

A. Pullum has been debunking the argument that this is the one book people should be using as guide to language. I find Strunk and White had a tenuous grasp on grammar. Many of their smaller rules are wrong, such as the blanket rule against using the passive voice.

Their larger rules are something you could never disagree with: “Omit needless words.” If you knew which words were needless, you would not need the advice.
Strunk and White offer no blanket rule against the passive voice, as even Pullum acknowledges in his Chronicle of Higher Ed piece on The Elements of Style:
The authors explicitly say they do not mean “that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice,” which is “frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” They give good examples to show that the choice between active and passive may depend on the topic under discussion.
And Zimmer’s tired, Pullum-flavored observation about the banality of “Omit needless words” is hardly fair: The Elements of Style presents this principle of composition (as Strunk and White call it, not “rule”) with 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 (as I pointed out in a response to Pullum’s Chronicle piece last year).

There are good reasons to find fault with The Elements of Style, but one should be sure that it’s The Elements of Style one is criticizing — the thing itself, not some rumor.

Related posts
Pullum on Strunk and White
Hardly (adverb) convincing (adjective) (Do Strunk and White ban adjectives and adverbs?)
The Elements of Style, one more time (My appraisal)

comments: 0