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April 11, 2009

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Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write “however” or “than me” or “was” or “which,” but can’t tell you why. The land of the free in the grip of The Elements of Style.

So I won’t be spending the month of April toasting 50 years of the overopinionated and underinformed little book that put so many people in this unhappy state of grammatical angst. I’ve spent too much of my scholarly life studying English grammar in a serious way. English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can’t even tell when they’ve broken their own misbegotten rules.

That sounds like standard-issue Chronicle of Higher Ed blunderbussery, but the author, Geoffrey K. Pullum, knows what he’s talking about — he’s a linguist, and co-wrote The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language — and the bulk of the essay is a startlingly comprehensive, point-by-point, and erudite take-down of Strunk and White.

Note for teachers (and the curious): 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. I usually ask my students to generate/expand a list of common grammatical mistakes THEY find annoying; when it comes to grammar, or standards of any kind, you have to love crowd-sourced criteria. (I guess you could also call it “sham democracy.”)

After that, I usually like to walk through the comma (and by implication the semi-colon), who/whom, that/which, and the great homophonic misspellings — e.g., it’s/its, there/their/they’re, where/we’re/were, usw. In particular, the comma is terrific to teach because it actually gives students tools and strategies to build complex sentences rather than just giving them anxieties about what they CAN’T do. You can do the same thing with parallel structure and to a lesser extent semicolons, but the comma is king. I usually like to teach commas and thesis statements together.

Via Language Log, where Pullum blogs; he’s been having it out with Strunk for a long, long time.

Posted April 11, 2009 at 2:34 | Comments (5) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Learnin'


Good read! My favorite may be the excursions beyond grammatical issues:

It is typical for college graduates today to be unable to distinguish active from passive clauses. They often equate the grammatical notion of being passive with the semantic one of not specifying the agent of an action. (They think "a bus exploded" is passive because it doesn't say whether terrorists did it.)

I'm not too attached to pre/proscriptive grammars, especially for spoken English. If we have to have a rule, I kinda like "if Shakespeare did it, it's okay", which overrides most of Strunk and White's grammar. Of course, Shakespearean English is dated, but I like to remember how good it can sound when you break the rules.

Probably the only spoken grammatical violation that consistently irritates me is when people use subject pronouns where object pronouns are appropriate.

Haven't been over to read the whole essay yet, but even crediting Tim's approval, I have to say that I for one am glad when people who ignore Strunk & White "feel vaguely anxious and insecure."

They ought to.

And as one who thinks more highly of simple, helpful advice than erudite linguistic analysis, let me also offer the following from George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language":

“[O]ne can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

1.Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2.Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3.If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4.Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5.Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6.Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

I think if I had to criticize Pullum's critique, it would be because Pullum has no sense of humor, and 2) his target frequently shifts (from Strunk to White and back again, and then from Elements to the hamhanded/misunderstood way it's applied, and so forth). But one of the great virtues of Pullum's takedown is that it really isn't technical. The clearest way I can phrase his position also happens to be unassailable: the best literary usage of the period, as found in writers like Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and others, contradicts S&W's positions.

Orwell is great. My own belief is that folks like Orwell, Strunk/White, and Pound were all heavily influenced by telegram style -- less the exact style itself than the heightened emphasis on efficiency in the transmission of meaning that the telegraph provided.

Orwell's virtue is that his mini-style guide is always comparative -- it's all about contrasting two different choices, offering a criteria for choosing between them, while acknowledging that sometimes you just don't have a better option. His best rule is #6; his worst is #3, which looks like it's had a few crucial words already cut out of it.

As Robin and Matt know, I'm a fan of the Orwell rules, particularly #5 (the etymological thesaurus will return!).

+1 that Pullum is taking himself or his subject a little too seriously. But I definitely agree with him that Elements is a poor guide to rely on; only more so after reading his points.

Posted by: Peter on April 11, 2009 at 10:19 PM

Speaking of "telegram style" evokes memories of the days when journalists often filed via telegraph. They got charged by the word and so developed their own argot, with sometimes hilarious results.

My favorite, bar none, is this response from a correspondent who thought he'd been ill treated by his boss:


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