Category Archives: Strunk and White

Writing Rules

Executive summary: I have had enough of misrepresentation by experts of what other experts have to say about grammar. (Added July 16, 2018)

The current concern of this blog is still the subject taught in school called grammar. Every aspect of school would seem to cause anxiety in somebody. Decades after they have left school, how many persons have nightmares of missing an examination? My mother was such a person, and I think her brother too. I seem not to be such a person, though I once dreamt of missing a plane.

How much support of current US President Donald Trump is due to memories of belittlement by teachers at school? A similar question may be raised about UK government minister Michael Gove’s saying, “people in this country have had enough of experts…”; and about the rise in Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has perceived a special threat from the Peace Academics.
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Writing and Inversion

Executive summary: The “voice” of a transitive verb may be active or passive. A piece of writing may be vigorous or torpid. There is not an exact correspondence between passive verbs and torpid writing. However, a passive verb is used to effect inversion of subject and object. One may also invert subject and auxiliary verb, subject and predicate, or two clauses, always adding new words. Each inversion may lead to torpid writing. This is what Strunk warned about in The Elements of Style, by issuing the command, “Use the active voice.” The command must be followed with discretion. Williams makes the same case, more elaborately, in Style: Towards Clarity and Grace. There is no foolproof executive summary of how to write well.


When E. B. White revised William Strunk’s original Elements of Style, he did not retain Strunk’s “Introductory,” whose first paragraph said of the book,

The experience of its writer has been that once past the essentials, students profit most by individual instruction based on the problems of their own work, and that each instructor has his own body of theory, which he may prefer to that offered by any textbook.

Perhaps many students today cannot receive individual instruction. They are just given textbooks that try to spell out everything. I have sensed this in mathematics, where new calculus books seem a lot bigger than those of 1950 and earlier. Continue reading

A New Kind of Science

Executive summary. Some sciences are called descriptive, empirical, or natural; others, prescriptive or normative. We should recognize a third kind of science, which studies the criteria as such that a thinking being imposes on itself as it tries to achieve success. I propose linguistics as an example. Collingwood introduced the term criteriological for the third kind of science. This was in The Principles of Art (1938), though I find the germ of the concept in earlier work, even in Collingwood’s first book, Religion and Philosophy (1916), in the passage on psychology that the author would recall in An Autobiography (1939).

Collingwood’s examples of criteriological sciences are logic, ethics, aesthetics, and economics. Pirsig effectively (and independently) works out rhetoric as an example in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). We may benefit from clarity here, given how people can have a strong reaction to being lectured by experts. For Collingwood, such a reaction is found in Nazi Germany; see the last chapter of The New Leviathan (1942). Reactions to grammar are the subject of my own two ensuing articles, “Writing and Inversion” and “Writing Rules.”


Some sciences are not recognized for what they are. The sciences themselves are not new, but a proper understanding of them may be new to some of us, including myself.

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On Knowing Ourselves

In a 2012 post in this blog, I criticized a 2009 essay called “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.” The putative advice was that of Strunk and White; but their advice was not in fact grammatical. They wrote not the elements of grammar, but The Elements of Style. They gave style advice by precept and example. The advice is good, if well understood. The critic should recognize that, as I wrote, “Rules of style are supposed to induce thinking, not obedience.”

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Writing, Typography, and Nature

Note added February 10, 2019: I return to this rambling essay, two years later in the Math Village. The main points are as follows.

  • Writing is of value, even if you never again read what you write.
  • There is also value to reading again, as in the present case.
  • A referee rejected a submitted article of mine in the history of mathematics because its order did not make sense—to that referee, though a fellow mathematician thought well of the article. A revision was eventually published as “On Commensurability and Symmetry.”
  • In the preface to The Elements of Typographical Style, Robert Bringhurst wonders how he can write a rulebook when we are all free to be different. He thus sets up an antithesis, such as I would investigate later in “Antitheses.”
  • From being simply a means of copying, typography has become a means of expression.
  • Yet typography should not draw attention to itself, just as, according to Fowler in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, pronunciation (notably of foreign words) should not.
  • Through my own experience of typography with LaTeX [and HTML, as in this blog], I have developed some opinions differing from some others’.
  • Bringhurst samples Thoreau,
    • whose ridicule of letters sent by post applies today to electronic media, and
    • who rightly bemoans how enjoying the woods is thought idle; cutting them down, productive.
  • In Gödel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter wonders how a message can be recognized by any intelligence. Bringhurst restricts the question to concern intelligences on this earth.
  • In my youth, Hofstadter introduced me to Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, (edited by Reps and Senzaki), whose influence on me I consider.
  • The Zen story about whether “this very mind is Buddha” suggests a further development of Collingwood’s “logic of question and answer.”
  • Through looking at another translation, I consider how Reps and Senzaki turned Chinese into English.
  • Rereading this blog led me back to Hofstadter.

Here are some meditations on some books read during a stay in the Nesin Mathematics Village, January, 2017. I originally posted this article from the Village; now, back in Istanbul, a few days into February, recovering from the flu that I started coming down with in the Village, I am correcting some errors and trying to clarify some obscurities.

Nesin Mathematics Village from the east, Wednesday, January 18, 2017
Nesin Mathematics Village from the east
Wednesday, January 18, 2017

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Learning mathematics

This is mostly reminiscences about high school. I also give some opinions about how mathematics ought to be learned. This article originally formed one piece with my last article, “Limits.”

I learned calculus, and the epsilon-delta definition of limit, in Washington D.C., in the last two years of high school, in a course taught by a peculiar fellow named Donald J. Brown. The first of these two years was officially called Precalculus Honors, but some time in that year, we started in on calculus proper. Continue reading

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.] Continue reading