Category Archives: Linguistics

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: There are sciences called descriptive, empirical, or natural; and there are sciences called prescriptive or normative. A third kind of science studies the criteria as such that a thinking being, such as one of us, imposes on itself as it tries to achieve success. Collingwood developed the concept and coined the term criteriological for such a science. Logic, ethics, aesthetics, and economics are Collingwood’s examples; I propose also linguistics as an example.

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.

Here I supplement and update “Strunk and White,” a post in which I took issue with a professional linguist’s attacks on The Elements of Style. This book was William Strunk’s “little book” (53 pages), made slightly less little (71 pages) by E. B. White. In The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (1842 pages), Geoffrey Pullum and Rodney Huddleston claim to present English grammar descriptively; in an essay called “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” Pullum thinks Strunk and White fail to understand English grammar, even as they give a prescriptive account of its use. Continue reading