The Incompetent Strunk and White

| 5/19/2009 3:24:18 PM

Elements of Style

If you love an old fashioned grammarian throw down, we've got a good one for you. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of William Strunk and E.B. White's The Elements of Style and  Geoffrey K. Pullum isnt celebrating.  In a delightfully vitriolic essay for The Chronicle Review, Pullum complains that the tiny guide "does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it."

Brutal. Then, in the very next breath, this: "The authors won't be hurt by these critical remarks. They are long dead." You get the distinct sense that Pullum would have been glad to see the book buried with the men who made it. "Both authors were grammatical incompetents," he writes. "Strunk had very little analytical understanding of syntax, White even less. Certainly White was a fine writer, but he was not qualified as a grammarian."

Pullum isn't pissed about the style advice, which he calls "mostly harmless"—all of his punches are aimed squarely at the grammar rules and the grammar itself: 

"Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs," they insist. (The motivation of this mysterious decree remains unclear to me.)

And then, in the very next sentence, comes a negative passive clause containing three adjectives: "The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place."

Larry Siegel
5/21/2009 11:44:38 PM

The Utne Reader can do no wrong. LARRY S.

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