The Incompetent Strunk and White

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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 andGeoffrey 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.”

That’s actually not just three strikes, it’s four, because in addition to contravening “positive form” and “active voice” and “nouns and verbs,” it has a relative clause (“that can pull”) removed from what it belongs with (the adjective), which violates another edict: “Keep related words together.”

“Keep related words together” is further explained in these terms: “The subject of a sentence and the principal verb should not, as a rule, be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning.” That is a negative passive, containing an adjective, with the subject separated from the principal verb by a phrase (“as a rule”) that could easily have been transferred to the beginning. Another quadruple violation.

A 50th anniversary is a big deal, and Geoffrey K. Pullum knows how to party.

Source: The Chronicle Review

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