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

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 thus update, my 2012 article, “Strunk and White.” There I took issue with a professional linguist’s attacks on William Strunk’s “little book” (53 pages), which was made slightly less little (71 pages) by E. B. White: The Elements of Style. In The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (1842 pages), Geoffrey Pullum and Rodney Huddleston claim to present their subject descriptively; in an essay called “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” Pullum thinks Strunk and White fail to understand the standard description of English grammar, even as they give a prescriptive account of its use. Continue reading