Tag Archives: Geoffrey Pullum

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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