Elements of Style's needless words

Scottish linguist Geoffrey Pullum's take-down in the Chronicle of Higher Education of the venerable Strunk and White Elements of Style has received some notoriety. It's Elements' 50th anniversary this month, but Pullum isn't celebrating in "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice." I have a copy of Elements and like many others thought its advice was the last word(s), but like many others have never managed to follow it because its advice, as Pullum neatly demonstrates, was unfollowable and shouldn't have been followed anyway. Pullum's piece is behind a subscription paywall (here), but since I subscribe I got to read it (nyah, nyah) [edit: Commenter MM (thanks!) says it is freely available at the link. Enjoy.]. Very entertaining. Just as entertaining (although not as enlightening) was his response over at the Language Log to the slings and arrows of outrageous commenters at Fark.com, where it got linked. First a little bit of the original, then some of his response.

From Pullum's "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice":

The Elements of Style 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.


"Use the active voice" is a typical section head. And the section in question opens with an attempt to discredit passive clauses that is either grammatically misguided or disingenuous.


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. 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.


The treatment of the passive is not an isolated slip. It is typical of Elements. 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.


"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. (Geoffrey Pullum, Chronicle for Higher Education)

Etc., etc., to devastating effect. By the end, I had lost all my anxieties and insecurities about split infinitives, "that" versus "which," using "However," at the beginning of a sentence and much more. What a relief.

However, over at Fark.com people relieve themselves differently. As their FAQ says: "Fark.com, the Web site, is a news aggregator and an edited social networking news site." Fark functions as a news aggregator by having readers submit links. As a social networking site it allows comments. And it is those comments to which Pullum responds:

  • To the guy who asked "why is a Scot writing invectives about an American style guide? That's like having a French writer comment on a style guide from French Canada": I've been an American citizen longer than you've been alive, and I have 25 years' experience of teaching about language at the University of California.
  • To the various people who assert that I am a disappointed style-guide author plugging a rival text ("the article's author has his own competing book to flog"): I haven't written anything that could plausibly be recommended to a freshman taking English composition. When people ask me for recommendations, I tell them to look at the very sensible and intelligent book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams.
  • To the guy who said "my penis could type a better article": your girlfriend told me she doesn't think so.

Of course Pullum is an academic writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Apparently the reading level was a bit above that of the average Farker:

Finally, a couple of people just couldn't stomach the following admittedly rather complex sentence of mine:

William Strunk was a professor of English at Cornell about a hundred years ago, and E.B. White, later the much-admired author of Charlotte's Web, took English with him in 1919, purchasing as a required text the first edition, which Strunk had published privately.

I did overestimate the reading age of Fark commenters. And naturally they assume that my piece is an exemplar of style, not a set of claims about why Americans are confused about grammar. So to train me in Strunkian style, we're going to make me say that again using only simple active clauses with no needless words:

Strunk was a professor. Cornell employed Strunk. Strunk taught English. A century has passed. Strunk published Elements. Strunk paid the bill. The edition number was 1. Cornell admitted E. B. White. White took English. The year was 1919. White bought Elements. Many years passed. White wrote Charlotte's Web. People admired White.

I hope that clears up the matter of what I meant with all my relative clauses and stuff.

Yes. It did. However.

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I long ago discarded Elements of Style as a deskside reference work, in part because of the very issues Geoffrey Pullum brings up. When I was in college I had a teacher who had the same bias against the use of the passive, combined with the same inability to recognize it. Passive, progressive, it was all the same to him. He also was big on the bogus that/which rule; I spent some time gathering counter-examples from from some of the finest stylists in the English language.

I particularly liked Pullum's Strunkian rewrite of his "rather complex" sentence. It exemplifies exactly what is wrong with so much current textbook writing. Subordinate ideas should be grammatically subordinate; this helps the reader pick out the main thought of a passage.

Oh, yeah, E. B. White was an excellent writer (though I never could stomach Charlotte's Web) and a great editor; that doesn't make Elements of Style a useful reference work. Sorry.

Actually, Pullum's piece seems to be freely available.

By Marilyn Mann (not verified) on 18 Apr 2009 #permalink

What irony! On Tuesday I recommended S&W to my research design class. Went home, looked at the Chronicle and found Pullum debunking the advice. Syncronicity always amazes.


Now, which teachers should I send this article to?

(Re: ending sentences with prepositions, my favorite reply is, "That is something up with which I shall not put!")

Wonderful. Thanks for sharing this.

Some delicious stuff here. The man's name is Pullum, not Pullam, to start with.

And then the description of him as a "Scottish linguist" is odd. Yes, for the last two years he's been teaching at Edinburgh, and will presumably continue there until he retires. And, yes, he was born in Scotland. But he grew up firmly in England, went to secondary school there, got a bachelor's degree at York and a Ph.D. at University College London, and taught at UCL for a while. And then moved to the United States, eventually spending about 20 years at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he made his reputation in linguistics.

I am very much not saying that he should be described as an "English linguist", an "American linguist", or for that matter a "British linguist". I'm saying that any attribution of nationality in a modifier to linguist is misleading, so the sensible thing would be to avoid nationality modifiers entirely.

There would, of course, be nothing wrong with noting that he teaches at the University of Edinburgh -- because that would be genuinely informative, where "Scottish linguist" is not.

AZ: All perfectly valid points. From now on, I will hold my tongue on a linguist's nationality (and try to spell his/her/its name right), Presumably gender is just as uninformative as nationality, and I suppose age is, too, although I note that the object(s) denominated as Pullum did refer to age in his/her/its/their response.

I hope you take this response to be consonant with my pro-vocative intent.

Well, it was time to announce the obvious. I used to put Strunk & White on my classes' required-text lists, but soon realized they wouldn't read it. I ended up inflicting my own materials on them, which turned into a home-brew textbook. It had a lot of S&W's basic principles, but (I hope) better examples and applications.

And now my blog Ask the English Teacher (http://crofsblogs.typepad.com/english/ ) gets 500 visitors a day even though I rarely post to it.

But the world seems full of people who want to clear up the differences between drink, drank, and drunk. Google sends them to me, with consequences for future literacy that I don't want to think about.

Are there really people around who still don't like split infinitives? Come on...

By tweetybirdie386sx (not verified) on 18 Apr 2009 #permalink

HAHAHAH! That's some funny shit.

However, I wonder why Pullum felt the need to come back at that one commenter with hateful misogynist crap concerning the commenter's putative girlfriend?

This reminds me of driving home with my daughter after her first quarter at Northwestern University. Northwestern has replaced Comp 101 with a series of freshman seminars designed to teach writing while exposing kids to different areas of study. My daughter, who was a thoughtful and entertaining writer, had just completed a horrid poetry seminar in which her papers came back with the words "passive voice" scrawled across the page and every incidence of the word "is" circled.

I comforted her by demonstrating how awkward it is to leave "is" behind. "Your turn lies ahead on the left!" nearly made us miss our exit. We are, after all, the sort of blunt country folk for whom a spade IS a spade, even as we use it to dig a new well.

The next quarter she took an environmental studies seminar where the professor pulled sentences from the students' writing and the class discussed how to rewrite them in order to make them clearer and more concise. She abandoned all interest in the English department and went on to make environmental studies her major.