Friday, June 19, 2009

Elements of Style: 50 years of bad grammar?

This is the eighth installment of the Elements of Style Series where I relay helpful hints for good writing from the classic book, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.

A couple of weeks ago, I was brainstorming my next Elements of Style post when I came across a scathing review of The Elements of Style, 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice by Geoffery K. Pullum. In this article, Pullum says that he "won't be celebrating" the 50th anniversary of The Elements of Style. In fact, he claims that the book has "significantly degraded" American college graduates' grasp of English grammar.

This is a strong claim, which Pullum spends five single-spaced pages supporting. As Pullum is a leading expert on grammar, it's worth breaking down his points to see what we can learn about the applicability of Strunk and White. What's so objectionable about The Elements of Style?

On Strunk and White's style advice. Even though he claims that the style advice is "mostly harmless," Pullum uses the words vapid, tautologous, silly and useless to describe Strunk and White's suggestions. In particular, he identifies the maxims "Be clear," "Do not explain too much" and "Omit needless words" as no-brainer advice.

Is it a no-brainer to avoid being verbose? You bet. Do good writers want to be clear? Sure. What does it mean to "explain too much"? I'm not sure. These are good points if you only read the section headings of Strunk and White, but The Elements of Style is valuable because it gives tangible advice to help writers overcome common bad habits. The concrete and clear advice beneath the headings sets The Elements of Style apart.

On the active and passive voice. After discarding the style advice, Pullum turns to Strunk and White's discussion of active versus passive voice:
What concerns me is that the bias against the passive is being retailed by a pair of authors so grammatically clueless that they don't know what is a passive construction and what isn't.

If you need one, here's a translation: Strunk and White are clueless about the passive voice. They're idiots who cannot distinguish between passive and active.

Despite being unclear and using too many words, Pullum is right that Strunk and White misdiagnose their chosen sentences as passive. Maybe I did too. After all, Pullum co-wrote a handbook on grammar. Does that mean Strunk and White's suggestions on what they call active and passive sentences are bad advice? I'm not sure. Pullum ridicules the Strunk and White example sentence:
There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.
as not passive. He insinuates that this sentence is fine. In his words, the sentence "has no sign of the passive in it anywhere." Then, should we leave it be? Here's Strunk and White's suggested alternative:
Dead leaves covered the ground.
In my opinion, Strunk and White's phrasing is punchy and clear -- just what a good writer wants. Maybe it was a misguided example to illustrate passive construction, but the Strunk and White version is better writing.

Pullum challenges the internal consistency of The Elements of Style. In particular, he notes places where Strunk and White violate their own rules. Here's Pullum again:
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."
Pullum is right again. Strunk and White messed up and violated their own rules. Oops. Pallum calls this "sheer ignorance." Maybe it is. On the other hand, writing is difficult. I have heard stories of E.B. White struggling for an entire afternoon over a page-long column. Yet, White was a wonderful writer. The best writers struggle, not with form or technicalities, but with the best way to communicate ideas.

Pullum criticizes other elements of Strunk and White's grammar. In particular, he takes the instruction from Strunk and White: "With none, use the singular verb when the word means no one or not one." Pullum criticizes this advice for being at odds with established literary practice at the time "when Strunk was teaching and when White was a boy." Pallum searches a database of books that were published around 1900 for the phrase "none of us."

In this so-called "experiment," Pullum describes three instances where the word none is used only in plural form: Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) and Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Avonlea (1909). Pallum then says "Is an intelligent student supposed to believe that Stoker, Wilde, and Montgomery didn't know to write? Did Strunk or White check even a single book to see what the evidence suggested?"

That's a scathing criticism, but I think it is unfounded. The Elements of Style is designed to correct common writing errors. It pays little attention to things that most people get right, dealing with difficult and commonly misunderstood topics. If you're in the business of exposing common mistakes, you have to recognize that even good writers mess up. The more common the mistake, the more likely it is that a good writer makes it.

Another point: on the use of none, some of the instances Pullum cites are quotes in works of fiction. Aren't phrases in quotes exempt from grammatical scrutiny? If we are not allowed to scrutinize them in their original context, how can we place these quotations on the pedestal of grammatical purity? Would we dare to do the same with George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion? If so, "I washed me face and hands before I come, I did." is wonderful grammar.

Yes. I believe that Stoker, Wilde and Montgomery knew how to write, but I also believe that they were human. Human beings make mistakes and we tend to make the same errors when something is difficult. But, make no mistake, clear writing is difficult. On writing clearly, The Elements of Style is still the best advice around. It might not be perfect, but it does the best a little book can.

The next installment of the Elements of Style Series will appear on this blog on Friday, 26 June 2009. I will continue this series each Friday until I run out of interesting topics in grammar, style and writing.

1 comment:

  1. You clearly have too much invested in Strunk & White and thus you are incapable of an objective evaluation of Pullman's criticisms. For example, you state that Strunk & White's rewrite "Dead leaves covered the ground" is the better version. No one would disagree, Pullman included! Here, what you seem to miss is that BOTH versions are Strunk & Whites and Pullman never insinuates that the first version is better. Anyone can write a lousy sentence and then produce a better rewrite. However, if the qualities that make the rewrite better are misidentified, how does that aid students?

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