Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Strunk & White & Ted & Alice

Geoffrey Pullum states beautifully what I have long thought about The Elements of Style in his Chronicle of Higher Education article, Fifty Years of Stupid Grammar Advice. I was assigned the book at William and Mary in 1974, and believed it for fifteen-twenty years after. Perhaps I should blame everything on that.

A sample of Pullum's takedown.
The book's toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules. They can't help it, because they don't know how to identify what they condemn.

"Put statements in positive form," they stipulate, in a section that seeks to prevent "not" from being used as "a means of evasion."

"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."
I was always more partial to Richard Mitchell, the Underground Grammarian. All his books are available online for free now. I read the first two, and especially loved Less Than Words Can Say (better advice, but the anecdotes in the The Graves of Academe are better.) I don't recall reading the other two. I should.

Commenter Erin (who is an English teacher) put me on to this and also sent this video. There is an American version as well, but I like this better.


Kurt said...

I was never assigned Strunk and White, but I bought a copy of it before leaving for college and studied it. I was not exactly a fan, either, and I wondered if there were something I was missing.

It wasn't until graduate school--when I was preparing to teach composition--that I found other books I liked a lot more: one was Style: an Anti-Textbook by Richard Lanham, which was irreverent and lots of fun. More useful for actual teaching purposes, though, was Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams.

wv: gremorse -- i'm trying to think of a clever definition that combines grammar and remorse, but I'm not satisfied with any that I've thought of so far.

Donna B. said...


Erin said...

We use S&W for our AP Lang classes, but I'm not crazy about it. I appreciate any alternatives you all have to suggest for future years. (We also use Warriner's English Grammar, published about 30 years ago, for all our other English classes, but with no budget money for books anytime in the next decade, it's a moot point to argue that one.)

I will add, though, that if you're going to tear apart what many see as a cornerstone of writing, please hire a competent editor. Granted, it may be that electronic journalists are given certain liberties the rest of us do not have; however, I am distracted by his failure to italicize titles, the confusion of the meaning of "like" versus "such as," and his propensity toward starting sentences with conjunctions (currently acceptable, but should be done for strong effect, not frequently as he has done).

Of course, now I suppose I'm opening my own brief thoughts to grammatical scrutiny...

Kurt, GREMORSE: remorse from relying on S&W as your "grammatical Bible" for too many years.

Kurt said...

Erin--thanks for supplying a good definition!

I'd definitely recommend looking into the Williams book (which is now called Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace) if I were you. I don't know whether or not it would seem good for the AP class, but at the very least, it might give you some good ideas about how to approach some topics differently.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I am not likely to be much help giving advice there. I liked what Orwell wrote about writing. And PJ O'Rourke's idea was that one learned writing best by exaggerating the style of famous writers for comic effect, lampooning them. Could be.

Maybe your classes would enjoy finding the contradictions in S&W, where White does the opposite of what he advises.

Different contexts allow different writing. In electronic media, I use dashes, quotation marks, italics, inappropriate capitalisation, and beginning sentences with a conjunction for effect. I would never do that in a report to be submitted to court at work. It is a very subtle art, to discern when one can stretch the rules and quote Bob Dylan or Douglas Adams in formal writing versus when that just looks like trying to be artificially hip.

(Now that artificial hips are becoming more common, that last phrase is going to be more problematic going forward, not because it doesn't capture the intended meaning well, but because it drags another, irrelevant meaning with it.)

I am joyously antipedantic with punctuation and style when blogging, entirely for effect. Of course, that effect is lost on folks who are not also a bit pedantic themselves - they don't know that something a little grammatically risque has just gone by. It is odd that I still revert to the correct, even archaically correct, when not going for intentional effect, keeping the periods out of the parentheses unless it is a stand-alone sentence.

Example: standalone would be an acceptable new term in informal electronic discourse. A formal use of the words would likely require a full division and subtle change in usage: ...unless the parenthetical is a sentence which can stand alone. I chose a midrange usage, older, but not formal stand-alone.

Note: Internet usage is forcing punctuation outside of quotation marks, which is the British form. It doesn't look right to me, but it makes sense.

Erin said...

Kurt, thanks for the recommendation.

We assign it as part of the summer reading work to make sure the students have brushed up on their grammar (by that point we expect those students to have mastered the foundations of grammar & mechanics). You'd be surprised how many AP students still come into the year with sentence fragments, "apostrophe amnesia" (not a one to be found in a paper deserving many), or grievous capitalization errors. We also use it to some extent to go through terminology that appears in the multiple choice section of the test and may be useful for the rhetorical analysis essay.

Kurt said...

AVI--From what you'd say, I'd definitely recommend you look into the Lanham book I mentioned Style: An Anti-Textbook. Although it has been more than 20 years since I read it, I remember how freeing it seemed in lots of ways in its irreverence for traditional rules about style and grammar.

Kurt said...

And Erin--I probably wouldn't be surprised! Although it has been more than a decade since I left teaching college English, I saw more than enough basic errors and problems, and I don't imagine things have gotten any better since then.

Assistant Village Idiot's wife said...

"Apostrophe amnesia" is far better than its opposite of putting an apostrophe everywhere. I'm not surprised by my elementary school kids doing that. It's all the adults who have no clue that drive me nuts!

DonSurber said...

Strunk and White works well for newspaper journalists. Following the book's instructions produces crisp, clear and clean prose that conveys the facts in as small a space as possible. The book is "The Elements of Style" and not "Creative Writing That Puts Shakespeare To Shame." Of course college English lit professors have moved beyond it. You also moved beyond "Dick and Jane" in your reading.

Anonymous said...

The Elements of Style's purpose is to establish basic rules for writing clear and concise prose. In multiple places, S&W acknowledge that usage depends on what the author is trying to express. As near as I can tell, the book's purpose was not to set forth a tome of iron-clad rules. Most writers would do well to heed Strunk and White's advice.

Pullum's arguments range from stupid and wrong to merely unpersuasive. For example, he claims "Do not inject opinion" is useless advice because students will ignore it and inject opinion anyway. That good advice will be ignored does not make the advice any less sound.

Pullum also identifies multiple grammar miscategorizations, such as active and passive voice. Perhaps S&W incorrectly label poorly written sentences as being in the passive voice, but the sentences nonetheless are poorly written. S&W recommend changing "There were a number of dead leaves lying on the ground" to "Dead leaves covered the ground". Who but a grammarian would argue that S&W gave bad advice because the first sentence was not in the passive voice?

Further, Pullum complains about S&W because writing tutors categorically redline all passive voice statements instead of trying to balance the often competing rules.

Following S&W's sage advice can help one write clearly and effectively. That their advice ignores the rules of grammar is irrelevant.

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