Tag Archives: Geoffrey Pullum

Writing Rules

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


An ongoing concern of this blog is the subject taught in school called grammar. See for example

  • the previous post, “Writing and Inversion,” about how a supposed rule against the passive voice might be better understood as a rule to avoid certain inversions of order (namely those inversions that add words and torpor);

  • the post before that, “A New Kind of Science,” presenting a theory that grammar is properly neither prescriptive nor descriptive, but “criteriological,” because it examines the criteria that we apply to our own speaking and writing;

  • an early expression (from six years ago) of some of those ideas: “Strunk and White.”

Grammar causes anxiety. 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 and her brother were such a persons, as I learned when growing up. 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? Similar questions may be raised about

  • UK government minister Michael Gove’s saying, “people in this country have had enough of experts …”;

  • 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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