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Strunk & White Struck Down

April 20, 2009

As you may know, The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White–for some, the seminal handbook on English grammar and style–celebrated its 50th anniversary on April 16th. The slim book (105 pages, compared to the 974 of the latest edition of The Blair Handbook) has, for years, been a staple of introductory writing courses in universities and high schools across the English-speaking world.

To celebrate the anniversary, Geoffrey K. Pullum, linguistics professor at the University of Edinburgh and frequent contributor to one of my favorite blogs, The Language Log, wrote “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice” for The Chronicle of Higher Education.  In the article, Pullum presents a brief history of The Elements of Style and offers his own criticism.

From what I’ve read, Pullum leans more toward descriptive linguistics and seeks to explore the way language is used–not to explain how it should be used.  Because of this, he is naturally inclined to disagree with the way many Strunk & White devotees have used their book to chide generations of writers for their grammar mistakes.  Beyond his distaste for prescriptive linguistics, Pullum criticizes The Elements of Style primarily because it consistently breaks its own rules.

A common phrase heard in grammar classrooms is, “Well, this writer breaks grammar laws because he obviously knows the rules but is choosing to disobey them, for poetic purposes,” or something similar, and one would tend to offer this as an excuse for Strunk & White, but Pullum writes that many of their examples (most glaringly, the examples for the passive voice) display that their general ignorance of English grammar and syntax is the cause of the broken rules sprinkled throughout the book.

Now I would never suggest that we throw out all grammar rules and suggestions, but I have recently been convinced that many people (often, and unfortunately, called Grammar Nazis) are far too concerned with linguistic minutia. So, in light of the fallacies in The Elements of Style, let’s chill in regards to strict language use and never ever try to argue either for or against split infinitives.  The Oxford comma, though, is still fair game.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 30, 2009 9:18 am

    Hi. I just wanted to invite you to check out my blog and, specific to the S&W issue, my latest post.

    http://blog.textarts.com/2009/04/strunk-and-white-elements-of-style.html

    Take care,
    Mark

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