50 years of stupid grammar advice

For the word nerd: a longish tear on Strunk & White.

That’s all my friend/colleague Patrick wrote as an introduction yesterday, when he sent me a link to The Chronicle Review’s50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.”

I read the pseudo-scholarly essay voraciously. Twice. And then I fired off a (more-or-less) carefully measured response.

What a MAGNIFICENT rant! Thanks so much for passing it along.

Although I love the author’s self-righteous outrage, I can’t agree with him entirely. As the head of a linguistics/English department, he of all people should know the difference between prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar. He attacks The Elements of Style as if it were a comprehensive manual of the former, when it was intended only as a guide for navigating the latter.

Because of this distinction, I think Pullum’s review misses the boat entirely. His rants are about the mechanics of grammar; The Elements of Style is about the mechanics of writing. The two may be related, but they are not synonymous.

I think Prof. Pullum would do well to at least *try* some of Strunk & White’s advice—like “don’t explain too much,” or perhaps “omit needless words.” As for his condenmation of Strunk & White for their “unnecessary piece of bossiness,” I would respond by holding up a mirror.

So there.

I was rather pleased with my screed until my friend/colleague Craig weighed in as well. He’s read The Elements of Style, of course … but that didn’t keep him from re-imagining “Strunk & White” as a sad, has-been country western act.

This weekend at Mystic Lake, playing their hits like …
“Irregardless, She Left Me”
“She’s Singluarly Possessive”
“Her Independent Claws”
“Parenthetially Speaking (She’s Mine)”

I chuckled at his cleverness. But I laughed out loud this morning when I came to work and found one more title:

At First It Was Good Then It Got Very Bad And I Wish I Was Free ‘Cause It’s Like Serving Time Because Being With You Has Become Just A Long Run-On Sentence”

That, right there, is the difference between understanding grammar and being able to apply it.

In the words of Professor Pullum himself, “English syntax … is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can’t even tell when they’ve broken their own misbegotten rules.”

God, how I wish he’d actually *read* his own essay before submitting it …


  1. I like Strunk & White. I like White’s introduction and Strunk’s instruction on what to do when you don’t know how to pronounce a word: “Say it loud.” My high school students asked why they couldn’t use the little book instead of the monster adopted by the state.My legal writing instructor said to consider Strunk & White the authority. I’m sentimental about S&W. And W wrote Charlotte’s Web, so I hate to read that he’s an idiosyncratic bumbler.

    (I also like their country-western hits.)

    • I’ll admit it, Kathy: I like Strunk & White too. I don’t think they unlocked The Secret to Great Writing — any more than anyone else has — but I think their advice was solid. Writers can never go wrong by writing more succinctly, or by favoring nouns and verbs over adjectives and adverbs. But maybe more importantly, writers can never go wrong by being true to their own voice. (And if we can say one thing about E.B. White, he was at least true to his own voice!)

      Anyway … thanks so much for your comment. I’ve been writing in a vacuum for a while, so it’s nice to hear from the outside world! 🙂

  2. A few years ago, a colleague gave me a copy of The Elements of Style; possibly as a hint. I opened it; flicked through a few pages; then closed it and have never opened it since. I justify this arrogance with the old-dogs/new-tricks argument. But while my colleague might have been implying criticism of my writing, I choose to believe that he meant well. And I choose to believe the same about Microsoft Word. I know it’s considered fashionable to bash Microsoft on every possible level but I feel that, considering the size and complexity of its software programs, bitching about the few glitches that do occur is kind of like denouncing God for putting speed bumps on your street. So, I am fairly tolerant when Word adds wavy green lines to my text.

    One of my transgressions that commonly irk Word results in the advice: Fragment (consider revising). Duh! Pot-kettle-black, people! This is followed closely by Word’s pathological objection to anything that has been written in the passive voice. Then strangely enough, when I type this paragraph, it passes muster with flying colours. So go figure!

    This reminds me of point-and-shoot cameras. They take great pains to ensure their owners execute perfect photographs: i.e. perfectly exposed, perfectly in focus. But sometimes I envisage a shot that doesn’t conform to the camera’s idea of perfection and I find myself engaged in a tug-of-war with its normative prejudices. Is it any wonder then that ideology and religion cause irreconcilable differences when we cannot even agree on something as simple as sentence structure?

    • You’re wise to see your friend’s gift of Strunk & White as simply a kind gesture, instead of a hint: You’re a wonderful writer, XpatScot! I’m glad you also take Word’s squiggly green suggestions (or “pathological objections,” as you so brilliantly phrase it) with a grain of salt. As you say, those tools — books on writing, squiggly green lines, the “Auto” mode on the camera — are meant to serve only as guides. Sometimes it’s by *breaking* the rules that we develop a sense of personal style. (In my case, that involves mixing plaids, stripes and polka dots. Ha.)

      As for irreconcilable religious differences … oh, don’t get me started! 🙂 Thanks, as always for your witty and insightful comment.

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