The Elements of Snide

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Every so often I’ll pick up a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style in a book store and decide to buy it.  It’s the book, after all, on writing well, and if I’m a writer I shouldn’t let myself get caught with my quills down by displaying some shortcoming in my middling education. It’s such a nice small volume to hold, too. So handy. Shouldn’t it be available at my deskside to be consulted?

Then I put the book down.

Maybe it’s because I don’t think I can read the book, as small as it is, and fully digest the contents. That would leave me furtively searching for guidance at a critical moment and maybe never finding it. Or worse, I might not know I need guidance, and so neglect to open the book at all. Or maybe it has something to do with Strunk sounding like “skunk” and White sounding opaque and dry and brittle, and I really don’t want to have anything to do with such unattractive qualities.

Still, I’m under their spell. Even if I haven’t read their book.

Now I have Geoffrey K. Pullum’s support in my indecision. In his article “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” published in The Chronicle Review, he eviscerates The Elements of Style.

The book’s publication, he writes “was most unfortunate for the field of English grammar, because both authors were grammatical incompetents. Strunk [a professor of English at Cornell]  had very little analytical understanding of syntax, White [a great writer and a student of Strunk’s] even less.”

Like a Jon Stewart of the grammar wars, Pullum marches merrily into battle:

“Even the truly silly advice, like ‘Do not inject opinion,’ doesn’t really do harm. (No force on earth can prevent undergraduates from injecting opinion. And anyway, sometimes that is just what we want from them.) But despite the ‘Style’ in the title, much in the book relates to grammar, and the advice on that topic does real damage. It is atrocious. Since today it provides just about all of the grammar instruction most Americans ever get, that is something of a tragedy. Following the platitudinous style recommendations of Elements would make your writing better if you knew how to follow them, but that is not true of the grammar stipulations.”

As I read the article, I began to wonder if the problem was that this Britishman — he’s the head of linguistics at the University of Edinburgh — was just looking down on American English. Strunk and White are like Old Testament prophets, with great beards and raw powers. Or like American Century thinkers, with thinning grey hair and wire-rim glasses.

Put Pullum got me thinking. Here he is dissecting the rule against using the passive voice:

Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses. “At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard” is correctly identified as a passive clause, but the other three are all errors:

    • “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” has no sign of the passive in it anywhere.
    • “It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had” also contains nothing that is even reminiscent of the passive construction.
    • “The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired” is presumably fingered as passive because of “impaired,” but that’s a mistake. It’s an adjective here. “Become” doesn’t allow a following passive clause. (Notice, for example, that “A new edition became issued by the publishers” is not grammatical.)

If you’ve read Elements, I’d like your thoughts. Or if you haven’t read it. What do you make of Pullam’s assertions? Here’s his reactions to some assertions made about him on Fark. (Was that passive? Should we care?)

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5 Comments

Filed under books, writing

5 responses to “The Elements of Snide

  1. In those last three examples, the problem isn’t passive voice, it’s wordiness. These are better:

    “Lots of dead leaves lay around.”

    “She soon regretted her big mouth.”

    “They kicked his sick ass out of school.”

    I have Strunk & White around here somewhere. The first law firm I worked at gave a copy to every new associate. That’s why appellate briefs make such compelling reading.

    As for Pullum, I think he was hit by an alien beam that turned him into a Scotsman.

  2. P.S. Yes, I know I should have written, “The first law firm at which I worked . . . .” I have chosen to the grammatical error over sounding like a putz.

  3. Ben5765

    I have never relied on Strunk & White, have never recommended it to my writing students, and have never understood why people have such high regard for it. Setting aside the problems identified by Pullum in his revealing article, the book is very short and nowhere even approaching comprehensive when it comes to either rules for grammar and syntax or recommendations of preferred style.

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