Strunk and White

The following is a lightly edited concatenation of some emails I wrote several years ago, in response to “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” Geoffrey K. Pullum’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 17, 2009). [I returned to Strunk and White in March 2018; I supplemented the present post in July 2018.]

Pullum’s article begins:

April 16 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a little book that is loved and admired throughout American academe. Celebrations, readings, and toasts are being held, and a commemorative edition has been released.

I won’t be celebrating.

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.

The authors won’t be hurt by these critical remarks. They are long dead. 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. After Strunk’s death, White published a New Yorker article reminiscing about him and was asked by Macmillan to revise and expand Elements for commercial publication. It took off like a rocket (in 1959) and has sold millions.

This was most unfortunate for the field of English grammar, because both authors were grammatical incompetents…

I did not use Strunk and White in school. I bought a copy later though, and I still read it from time to time with pleasure. White’s revision is apparently under copyright, though it can be found on Library Genesis; Strunk’s original work is available at Bartleby.

As for Pullum, it seems to me that he should decide whether he’s a descriptivist or a prescriptivist. As you know if you looked at the end of his article, Pullum is one of the editors of a humongous tome, the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. I own this book, and I sometimes refer to it,—not for style advice, but in curiosity about some grammatical form that has caught my attention. The CGEL takes issue with grammatical prescriptivists. I agree with the complaint, if one wants to treat grammar as a science.

But Strunk and White is not a scientific book. It’s a book of advice on how to write well. I don’t see that a scientific grammarian can claim any special insight into how to write well, any more than an evolutionary biologist can claim special insight into what is right or wrong in human behavior.

Indeed, Pullum’s pronouncements on Strunk and White may cause us to question the scientific value of his grammatical research, just as we might question the scientific value of archeo-biological research done by a Biblical literalist. Indeed, while impressed by the scholarship of Pullum and others in the Cambridge Grammar, I am troubled by the admission of the editors that their work makes use of their own sense, as native speakers of English, for what is right or wrong in English.

I rely on this sense when I write about grammar. But my concern then is what is good writing.

Mr Pullum seems to want to embarrass himself as a grammarian. Concerning Strunk’s rule 10, “Use the active voice”, Pullum writes:

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. “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.)

The problem with Pullum’s complaint is that the authors never claim the examples are examples of passive voice. They write before the examples:

Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.

The alternative is not between active and passive. “Perfunctory” in the OED is “done merely as a matter of duty, form, or routine, and so without interest, care, or enthusiasm; carried out with a minimum of effort; formulaic, mechanical; superficial, trivial.” This just describes the (bad) examples quoted.

Pullum accused Strunk and White of seeing passives where none were to be found. I pointed out that Strunk and White never said they saw passives in the examples that they gave (and that Pullum quoted); they just saw bad writing.

In his Chronicle article, Pullum goes on to say:

I have been told several times, by both students and linguistics-faculty members, about writing instructors who think every occurrence of “be” is to be condemned for being “passive.” No wonder, if Elements is their grammar bible.

Anybody who would take Strunk and White for a grammar bible is woefully misguided, like anybody who would take Genesis for a biology bible. But it is not Strunk and White who are doing the misguiding (any more than it is Moses, I suppose, who misguides today’s Biblical literalists). Having just reread most of Strunk and White, I see no suggestion that the book is intended to teach grammar. The book is not The Elements of Grammar, but The Elements of Style.

White refers to his teacher Strunk as a friend. White notes Strunk’s particular aversion to “the vile expression ‘the fact that’.” Yet White confesses to having failed, half the time, to obey Strunk’s injunction to “revise it out of every sentence in which it occurs.” Of course writers disobey rules, even their own rules. Pullum observes that Strunk and White do this, and he seems to think this is a reason to condemn their book. Somehow he has confused rules of style with rules of arithmetic, like “Don’t divide by zero.” Rules of style are supposed to induce thinking, not obedience.

Pullum says also:

It is typical for college graduates today to be unable to distinguish active from passive clauses.

This may well be so. Is it a problem? Not if the students can actually write. Perhaps they can’t write. If so, is the cure to make sure they can tell active from passive? Perhaps not, since Strunk and White are evidently not too concerned with the grammatical distinction, and they probably are better writing teachers than Pullum. But perhaps I am begging the question, since Pullum seems to think that Strunk and White are currently teaching, and mis-teaching, college students.

I myself noted one technical grammatical confusion in Strunk and White. Rule 7 is, “A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.” Ludicrous violations of this rule include “Wondering irresolutely what to do next, the clock struck twelve.”

Another violation is given:

“On arriving in Chicago, his friends met him at the station.”

This is a bad sentence, but pace the rule as stated, the word “arriving” here is a verbal noun—a gerund—, and not a participle. Strunk and White do elsewhere show themselves to be aware of this distinction and to think it important. In Chapter IV, “Words and expressions commonly misused,” they warn against using a participle for a verbal noun: against saying

“Do you mind me asking a question?”

rather than

“Do you mind my asking a question.”

By the way, Strunk and White acknowledge that sentences of the former type have their defenders. In any case, according to me, the sentence about Chicago could be corrected to read:

“On Fred’s arriving in Chicago, his friends met him at the station.”

More from Pullum:

Some of the claims about syntax are plainly false despite being respected by the authors. For example, Chapter IV, in an unnecessary piece of bossiness, says that the split infinitive “should be avoided unless the writer wishes to place unusual stress on the adverb.” The bossiness is unnecessary because the split infinitive has always been grammatical and does not need to be avoided.

Whether the split infinitive has always been grammatical has little relevance to the question of whether it should be avoided. The vile expression “the fact that” has always been grammatical, but should be avoided.

Pullum continues:

(The authors actually knew that. Strunk’s original version never even mentioned split infinitives. White added both the above remark and the further reference, in Chapter V, admitting that “some infinitives seem to improve on being split.”)

Here Pullum ignores one of the great charms of Strunk and White. White’s full statement is,

“Some infinitives seem to improve on being split, just as a stick of stove wood does.”

You read Strunk and White for sentences like this, as much as for the formal rules. Indeed, the humorless pedant might read White’s sentence here as a violation of Rule 18 in Chapter V: “Use figures of speech sparingly.”

In a language tutorial at St John’s College in Santa Fe [concerning which college, see my article in pdf], my tutor William Darkey once noted E. B. White’s thoughts on his wife. From the New York Times comes the following:

Mr. White described his love affair with Katharine Sergeant Angell as “stormy.” He added, “She was a divorced woman, but a conscientious mother with two children. I was six years younger than she. We finally went off and got married one day.” That was in 1929. Years thereafter, he was to write: “I soon realized I had made no mistake in my choice of a wife. I was helping her pack an overnight bag one afternoon when she said, ‘Put in some tooth twine.’ I knew then that a girl who called dental floss tooth twine was the girl for me.”

I think I love my wife for more serious reasons than White admits to here. That’s me. But whom do we want teaching us to write: the man who edited Strunk’s parvum opus, or the man who edited a two-thousand-page doorstopper of a book that uses words like “irrealis” for the subjunctive?

Pullum wrote

These examples can be found all over the Web in study guides for freshman composition classes. (Try a Google search on “great number of dead leaves lying.”)

I did search, and I found a link to an rtf file by a biology teacher suggesting the following:

This sheet is provided to help guide you in writing your lab report in a scientific format…

Use the active voice (tense), not passive voice, when writing, it is much more direct and vigorous. For example, “Dead leaves covered the ground.” (Active voice) versus “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.” (Passive voice). I highly recommend the ‘little book’ entitled The elements of style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, it costs about $7.

OK, the guy mislabels a bad sentence as “passive.” Big deal. The same search found a blog (or what do you call it?) that makes most of the points about Pullum that I have.

One Comment

  1. Posted May 7, 2013 at 2:53 am | Permalink | Reply

    I’ve read only a little bit from Strunk and White, but had found it fun and useful. It looks like Pullum was trying hard to be polemical, and he seems to have got what he wanted—his article is one of the top hits for Strunk and White on Google.

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