Sunday, October 26, 2014

McGrath on Pinker on Strunk and White

Charles McGrath recently reviewed Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Early on, McGrath writes about the book that Pinker’s book means to replace:

Though still revered, The Elements of Style, to be honest, is a little dated now, and just plain wrong about some things. Strunk and White are famously clueless, for example, about what constitutes the passive voice.
Dated? Yes. “Temporally incorrect” is how I like to put it. And some of Strunk and White’s cautions and preferred usages baffle. But this business about “famously clueless”: like Pinker, McGrath repeats Geoffrey Pullum’s claim that Strunk and White do not understand the passive voice. As I’ve argued in a response to Pullum’s take on The Elements of Style, that claim is a misreading of the plain sense of Strunk and White’s text. Follow the link and see if you agree.

For a more thoughtful (and critical) appraisal of The Sense of Style, I’d recommend this review. Alex Sheremet patiently takes apart passages that Pinker presents as showpieces of good prose. In so doing, Sheremet makes me suspect that The Sense of Style ’s sense of style will make me slightly crazy. I am waiting for the library to make it happen.

An interested reader can find my pre-Sense of Style take on Pinker and Strunk and White in a post about a 2012 Pinker lecture. That post has had a number of visits from Harvard and environs, and I’ve wondered, of course, if one (or more) of the visitors might have been Steven Pinker. But I doubt it. Like the 2012 lecture, The Sense of Style gets the story of The Elements wrong, stating that E. B. White turned William Strunk’s “course notes“ into a book.

In 2013, this tweet made me happy. And it still does:


December 20, 2014: I’ve written a review of The Sense of Style.

Related reading
All Elements of Style posts (Pinboard)

comments: 6

Daughter Number Three said...

Woo... that's quite a tweet. I saw Pinker speak a week or so ago and thought of you!

Michael Leddy said...

The hair — everyone sees the resemblance. :)

Daughter Number Three said...

His hair is truly something. I wonder if it has its own Twitter feed.

I feel just a bit reverse-sexist [which of course doesn't exist] thinking that it reveals his vanity.

Michael Leddy said...

There is a Twitter feed, with all of two tweets. But there’s also the The Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists.

Alex Sheremet said...

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the link.

Style guides have their use, but mostly for the technically-minded, or mediocre and sub-mediocre writers who wish to improve mechanics.

There's a little in-between, sure, but you can't 'make' good writers out of bad -- you can only hope to assuage detritus, and therefore make things slightly more manageable.


Michael Leddy said...

Alex, thanks for stopping by. I guess we differ in our thinking about such books. I think they can have significant talismanic value, as ever-present reminders to take care. I think that helps to explain the attachment that so many people have to The Elements of Style, or the attachment David Foster Wallace had to Garner’s Modern American Usage.