Sunday, January 21, 2018

Oliver Kamm on The Elements of Style

Oliver Kamm, writing in The Sunday Times, exhorts his reader to “ditch the style guides and stop worrying about passives.” And he points to a usual suspect:

The prohibition on using the passive voice is, you see, very much a 20th-century phenomenon. As far as I know, it originated with The Elements of Style (1918) by William Strunk, an American volume that in a 1959 edition revised by the celebrated children’s author E.B. White has sold more than ten million copies. According to Strunk: “Many a tame sentence can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive [verb] in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.”
Except that isn’t what Strunk wrote. From the 1918 Elements:
Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a verb in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.
That advice follows Strunk’s injuction to “use the active voice.” Strunk has more to say about this injunction:
The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive. . . .

This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.
He offers a pair of examples:
The dramatists of the Restoration are little esteemed to-day.

Modern readers have little esteem for the dramatists of the Restoration.

The first would be the right form in a paragraph on the dramatists of the Restoration; the second, in a paragraph on the tastes of modern readers. The need of making a particular word the subject of the sentence will often, as in these examples, determine which voice is to be used.
The Elements of Style, in all editions, offers no prohibition on the passive voice. The book does offer the reminder that the active voice, again and again, works better. Student writers whose essays refer to theses that “will be argued” and poems that “will be analyzed” and topics that “will be discussed” can benefit, always, from that reminder.

Kamm catches Strunk using the passive voice — “Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic” — and concludes that Strunk didn’t know much about grammar. But the passive voice, “frequently convenient and sometimes necessary,” as Strunk says, works well in that sentence, in which emphasis falls on sentences as things to be operated upon and improved. To recast the sentence in the active voice — “A writer can make many a tame sentence of description or exposition lively and emphatic” — seems no improvement, suggesting a slightly comical image of a writer as a manic mechanic, fixing sentence after sentence.

Oliver Kamm follows Geoffrey Pullum and Steven Pinker in claiming that Strunk doesn’t understand the passive voice. And Kamm follows Pinker in claiming that The Elements of Style prohibits use of the passive voice. It doesn’t, as even Pullum acknowledges. Which is not to say that the book is free of problems: I think it has many. But fair is fair, except when it isn’t.

Related posts
Pullum, Strunk, and White
Pullum on On Writing Well
Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style
Pinker on Strunk and White
The Elements of Style, my review

[Does Kamm mean to be dismissive in describing E.B. White as a “celebrated children’s author”? Not as an essayist and New Yorker writer? Fans of Tom Waits might recognize “manic mechanic.”]

comments: 2

Geo-B said...

Well, when you produce a classic like Charlotte's Web, you might be a "celebrated children's author." Instead of "classic dramatist," should we describe Shakespeare as "gifted sonneteer" or "noted Elizabethan actor"? (Just being contrary.)

Michael Leddy said...

He is a celebrated children’s writer, but other things too. In his book on usage, Kamm calls White “a fine popular writer.” I hear some condescension. Compare Pullum: “Certainly White was a fine writer, but he was not qualified as a grammarian.”