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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Strunk and White, Yuk!

Posted by Bill Benzon on 06/30/09 at 10:08 AM

Missed this one when it first appeared. Linguist Geoffrey Pullum trashes The Elements of Style on its 50th anniversary: “Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense.” On the 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.” On not splitting infinitives, S & W are wrong wrong wrong. And so forth.


I’m surprised you fell for Pullham’s inept critique. Do yourself a favor and read Michael Leddy’s four-blog-post dissection of Pullham’s argument.

By Matt Thomas on 06/30/09 at 02:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Okay, that’s it, I’ve had it.  I have had it with these lazy, sweeping denunciations of Strunk & White, created for no other reason than to get attention with lazy contrarianism.

First of all, people should be aware that it is beyond cliché to put up a “it’s not as great as everyone says” article/post when some beloved work reaches an anniversary.  See, for instance, this article from Slate on the 20th anniversary of Moore’s Watchmen. Or even better, see this “Room for Debate” piece at the New York Times website, about Elements of Style’s 50th.  The “debate” goes like this: “The book is terrible” (Pullum); “the book is obsolete” (Patricia O’Conner, author of the mediocre-at-best grammar guide Woe Is I); “I don’t hate the book as much as I used to”; “the book is weird”; and, “the book is useful but way too popular.” Anyone who thinks that they’re saying something original or interesting by simply posting the same old reassessment is deluding themselves (to say nothing of it being, currently, the end of June, more than two months since the anniversary has come and gone).

Second, to the specific charges against the book.  Now, I happen to agree that a lot of the grammar advice in The Elements of Style can and maybe should be disregarded.  In this, it’s like pretty much every other style guide out there; Strunk & White did not create the prohibition against split infinitives, and while I surely disagree with that prohibition I don’t see where their decision to use it is more arbitrary than, say, the MLA’s rule against beginning a sentence with a numeral.

However, this is not much to stake an argument on—"I disagree with them about whether to put an apostrophe-s after a noun ending in s"—is a pretty feeble attack—and so critics of S&W have to overreach.  Sometimes this is done by simply ignoring common sense—SEK, in his post on the anniversary, is reduced to maintaining that “tangledly” could ever sound good in a sentence—and sometimes by simply lying.  As Leddy’s post (helpfully linked by Matt, above) points out, Pullum (not “Pullham,” FWIW) is only able to describe advice like “Omit needless words” as “useless,” “redundant,” etc. by disingenuously ignoring the many specific and helpful examples the authors provide for this advice, thus conveniently allowing him to burn a straw book.  (Scott does this too, but I’m inclined to attribute that not to malice as much as to placidly buying in to the image of Elements of Style as unhelpfully prescriptive that competitors like Pullum and O’Conner have done their best to propagate.)

Strunk & White’s book helped me and many fellow writers more than any other book on writing that I can think of; that doesn’t make it immune from critique, but it does make me particularly impatient with critiques that proceed from false premises and have no apparent reason to exist than to cash in on that very book’s justly deserved acclaim.

(By the way, in the preview, some of my links seem to show up right and some don’t, so apologies if this looks weird…)

By tomemos on 06/30/09 at 05:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, tomemos is right. It’s “Pullum” not “Pullham.” I regret the error.

By Matt Thomas on 07/01/09 at 01:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not a wild-eyed contrarian and yet I find myself partial to critiques like SEK’s and Pullam’s--and I loved the book when it was assigned to me in class for the first time. I still edit other people’s papers with my ear attuned to the S/W in my mind. However, one can not simply dismiss the very common errors and simply dunderheaded advice it contains.

I doubt the book causes any harm really--the advice only rarely instructs someone to do something grammatically wrong and mostly errs on the side of making writers too cautious. But any writer likely feel pinioned by S/W probably was never going to be a particularly adventurous writer to start with.

However, it is a manual that offers semantic, syntactic and stylistic advice--I fail to see how attacking that advice as wrong headed is attacking a straw man--grammatical advice is the only man in the book. To attack or praise that advice is the only way to legitimately criticize it.

By Jim on 07/02/09 at 08:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Saying that the book gives bad advice is certainly not a straw man, you’re right.  The straw man comes in distortions that Pullum (and SEK, but let’s leave him aside for now) levies against the book in order to praise it.  The part of S&W that people find most useful is the stylistic advice, and so that must be torn down ("mostly harmless”; “limp platitudes"); to do so, he pretends as though the book just makes style pronouncements unsupported by examples. “Be clear” he calls “vapid”; “Do not explain too much” is “tautologous”; “Omit needless words” is “useless.” The reasoning is that everyone knows they should be clear, it’s obvious that explaining “too much” is bad, and that “the students who know which words are needless don’t need the instruction.” The problem, as Michael Leddy points out in the post that Matt linked to, is that Strunk and White provide clear illustrating examples of all of these principles, examples which Pullum entirely ignores.  When Pullum sneers that “Following the platitudinous style recommendations of Elements would make your writing better if you knew how to follow them,” he is actually deceiving uninformed readers about what the book contains.

As a general point, I don’t object to critique of a beloved artifact, even if it doesn’t make me feel very good.  The point at which it gets annoying is when it becomes a fad, as in the New York Times “debate” piece I linked to above, in which five people (including Pullum) take turns attacking or downplaying the value of the book.  The image of people climbing over each other to dismiss a classic most thoroughly, especially when there’s a hint of professional jealousy, is not very dignified.

(By the way, it’s still Pullum, not Pullam.  Bill, do you mind changing it in the post so that we’re all working with the same vocabulary?)

By tomemos on 07/02/09 at 10:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Though humorlessness isn’t a crime, it’s also worth noting—as Leddy does in the posts I linked to above—that Pullum completely misses the jokes in S&W. It’s hard to take someone so serious seriously.

By Matt Thomas on 07/02/09 at 11:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I remember a prof I had who insisted on all the shibboleths and zombie rules from S&W, especially “hopefully,” “the fact that,” the so-called “split infinitive,” and the prohibition of “however” in sentence initial position.  The objectionable thing about the book is precisely the mindless adoration of it and the fossilization of such shibboleths.  I have found Liberman’s and Pullum’s critiques of this book immensely liberating.

By on 07/02/09 at 12:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi. An enjoyable discussion. I wrote a bit about the NY Times blog piece a couple months ago. You might be interested:


By on 07/04/09 at 12:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s been most of a decade, I realize, since I started insisting that students and colleagues read Adios, Strunk and White before submitting academic-style essays.

I’ve always been surprised how little known the book was.

By Bill Tozier on 07/08/09 at 03:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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