The campaign begins, at Brown

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I've simply had it with all the people who keep telling me that they revere The Elements of Style because it's such a nice little book and helped them so much with their writing when they were in college that they carry it everywhere they go and give it to all their students or hand a copy to each new employee that they hire for their company yadda yadda yadda… I have decided that my campaign against Strunk and White's toxic little compendium of unfollowable dumb advice, bungled grammar claims, and outright mendacity must be taken directly to America's colleges, starting with the great universities of the East Coast. For the opening event I have chosen Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. I will speak on the Brown campus at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday night next week, April 13, in the Metcalf Chemistry Building Auditorium at 190-194 Thayer Street. Admission is free, and Language Log readers get a 30% discount off that. Be there.

The lecture is designed to be accessible and enjoyable for almost anyone with an interest in the English language — except perhaps for people who want to tell me that they revere The Elements of Style because it's such a nice little book and helped them so much with their writing when they were in college that they carry it everywhere they go and give it to all their students or hand a copy to each new employee that they hire for their company yadda yadda yadda.

I hoped originally to stoke up the crowd to a huge outburst of anger against The Elements of Style and end the evening with a cathartic mass burning of copies of the book, everyone setting fire to copies they had brought with them and holding them aloft like a candles, waving them so that embers of flaming nonsense like "Write with nouns and verbs" scatter through the air like precious twinkling sparks of wisdom and truth… But I am told that the fire marshals for the Metcalf Chemistry Building have ruled that out in no uncertain terms. They are not happy about the courtyard bonfire idea, either.

Another idea I had was that everyone would strip naked in a symbolic throwing off of prescriptivist strictures, a return to the naked innocence of using the language as it is rather than as a pair of misinformed old authoritarians once wanted it to be… But it turns out that they already do that at Brown in the various undergraduate libraries, during the celebrated naked donut run every semester, so this would be absolutely nothing new.

The event now planned, therefore, is likely to be quite safe despite the huge crowds expected, and fit for family TV news viewing. (The networks are a little disappointed; their location crews had been making plans for coverage of either a major blaze or a lot of titillating pixelized shots of public nudity.)

Brown University, the 7th to be founded in America, was the first to accept students regardless of their religious faith. That element of tolerance is important when you are going to speak out against a book that many people seem to regard as a sacred text. Brown is also the university where it was first proposed that computer-searchable corpora of text would one day be important for linguistic investigation — for finding out what the language is actually like so you don't have to go by the unfiltered prejudices that dopey old coots stuff into their cockamamie usage books.

The Longman group now own the rights to the current (4th) edition of The Elements of Style. I hope the rumors I have heard about them capitalizing on my campaign by setting up a book display in the lobby of the Metcalf Building are untrue. You wouldn't believe how tiring it is kicking over tables of books. I want to reserve my energy for giving the lecture. See you there.

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123 Comments »

  1. Jonathan Badger said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 11:04 am

    On the other hand, Brown was also the basis for H.P. Lovecraft's fictional "Miskatonic University", where evil sanity-destroying tomes like the Necronomicon and the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan were kept, so "Elements of Style" sounds like it fit right in…

  2. Sili said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 11:23 am

    You're fast becoming the Richard Dawkins of Grammarians. (That's meant as a compliment…)

    [Thank you. So few people take "grammarian" as a compliment, but I do. As for Dawkins: he seems to have taken on God. I have hope that extricating humanity from the cold grip of Strunk and White may prove a bit easier that discrediting all of religion. —GKP]

    Unfortunately the reduced entrance fee doesn't quite compensate for the airfare in my case.

    Now that the other fun stuff has been ruled out, I hope you'll at least still be juggling seafood.

  3. kdh said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 11:37 am

    I doubt it will change the situation greatly. Even if they may agree with Pullum's enlightenment from the heart, they wouldn't be able to follow the teaching unless their employers or editors accept what is right. However, I hope that the seeds will grow and flourish when they become the authorities.

  4. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 11:53 am

    I'm sure we could get you a venue here at Rutgers. I for one would be very receptive to such a lecture.

    [Ryan, I'd be thrilled. Pull together a few hundred close friends and have your people call my people. —GKP]

  5. Dan Scherlis said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 11:54 am

    This is the excuse I've been waiting for, to ask you to please suggest an alternative. I know someone who continues to teach university students using the Toxic Little Book. When confronted with the errors and inconsistencies that I've gleaned from the Log, she makes the reasonable request, "Okay, then. So what DO you recommend, for a style guide that emphasizes clarity, and is accessibly-written?"

    Please, @Geoff, what do I tell her?

    Similarly, what books on style might you recommend for the other recovering Strunkaphilic proscriptivists in my life? (Hi, Mom!)

    [So many people ask me this. What I usually say is (1) take a look at Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams — much better as a textbook on writing; and (2) get Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage for a desk reference — wonderfully authoritative and helpful, and also astonishingly cheap. —GKP]

  6. Christopher Henrich said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

    The Elements of Style sucks bigtime. But it will remain popular because it meets a real need, however badly, until there is a better way to meet the same need. This is for adult instruction in Standard Written English. Old-fashioned school grammars did this, imperfectly. It would be better to have a "grammar book" written by someone who understands modern linguistics.

  7. john riemann soong said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

    Please, please come to UVA. What would it take?

    [The great University of Virginia? Just get their people to call my people. I'll be there. —GKP]

  8. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

    @Sili
    "You're fast becoming the Richard Dawkins of Grammarians"

    Will we soon be seeing buses blazoned with:

    There's probably no Grammar.
    Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.

    ???

  9. empty said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 12:52 pm

    Here at Brown! This is almost as good as an Annie Lennox sighting.

    I am working on getting the calendar typo corrected. I will be happy to clean your erasers, too, if you like.

  10. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

    Sehr geehrter Herr Prof. Dr. Pullmann,

    Paraphrasing Kurt Tucholsky:
    Ihre Probleme möchte ich haben!

    Hochachtungsvoll, usw.

    [Pullmann? Wer is das? —GKP]

  11. bulbul said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

    What Sili said. Any chance you'll take this show on the road? I'm not expecting you to show up here in Hicksville, Central Europe, but Vienna would be nice, wink-wink, hint-hint.
    Also, you might want to think about how the inevitable global movement sparked by your soon-to-become legendary lecture at Brown will be referred to. You wouldn't want to leave that to the newspeople.

  12. jl said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

    This needs to be set up as a huge tour across the country. Next stop, Northwestern University, please?

  13. carla said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

    I was lucky enough to see Prof. Pullum toss a stack of copies of that "vile little compendium of tripe about style" into a trash can at the MIT Coop bookstore a few years back. As to who was mischievous enough to place the stack conveniently at his elbow in advance of his talk … well, some set-ups are too good to question.

    If you have a chance to attend Prof. Pullum's lecture, do.

  14. jeffrey said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    @bulbul: As a movement for which the purpose is to cleanse and purge vile, unneeded 'Elements', it shall be called, of course, the "Brown mov…"
    …oh, wait a minute… OK, you're right – this one needs some thought.

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 1:46 pm

    Do you need more qualified quotations on nouns and verbs versus adjectives and adverbs, to show how it's done? There's John Frederick Nims and David Mason in Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry, pages 133–137 (readable at Amazon). They imply an interesting comparison: nouns are the bones of writing, verbs are the muscles, adjectives and adverbs are the fat. Of course, a healthy body needs some fat. (I recall a somewhat more explicit comparison developed at greater length in the edition by Nims alone that I read in the '80s.) Incidentally, they say some of their comments apply to prose as well.

    Then there's Mark Twain's character Pudd'nhead Wilson: "As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out."

    Some more quotations are here. I wonder how much is from S&W's influence and how much is from other influences or arrived at independently.

  16. john riemann soong said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

    Well we could call it the Brownian Movement…

  17. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 2:15 pm

    @ john riemann soong:

    "Well we could call it the Brownian Movement…"

    I'm tempted to ask "As in fecal?" but I won't.

  18. Rubrick said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

    This is very tough for me. I'm fully on board with the fact that Elements is, for the most part, insidious nonsensical bullshit, some of which impedes my reading and writing to this day.

    And yet… when I first got my hands on it at age 12 or 13, it was a revelation. The very idea that brevity and simplicity could be virtues in writing had never dawned on me, and was certainly never imparted to me by my teachers. (The younger you are, the more you get praised for writing long, convoluted sentences with advanced vocabulary.) By gum, a sentence phrased in the active voice often was a lot more crisp and vigorous than its passive counterpart! Such ideas were completely new to me. Perhaps most critically, the book itself was immensely entertaining. It stoked my desire to write, and write as well as I could.

    Whether this is enough to compensate for its causing me to correct all my friends for "misusing" hopefully is of course an open question. The world direly needs a guide as short, accessible, and enjoyable as Elements, but filled with sense rather than nonsense.

  19. Dan T. said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 3:17 pm

    Did it beat the Playboy magazines you probably also stumbled onto around that age for entertainment value?

  20. Di said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 3:19 pm

    Oh please oh please come to Minnesota. Or even Chicago. I would totally road trip to Chicago from the Twin Cities for this.

  21. Aengus said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

    Given how entertaining a read that was, I'd love to watch one of these lectures, but am unfortunately on the wrong side of the Atlantic… Are there any plans to record one of them? It's exactly the stuff that belongs on Youtube (an idea Google themselves are encouraging).

  22. peter said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

    "Did it beat the Playboy magazines you probably also stumbled onto around that age for entertainment value?"

    But sir, I only had a copy of The Elements of Style for the pictures, honest!

  23. Blake Stacey said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

    What I usually say is (1) take a look at Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams — much better as a textbook on writing; and (2) get Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage for a desk reference — wonderfully authoritative and helpful, and also astonishingly cheap. —GKP

    I was wandering through the Harvard Coop bookstore a few weeks ago, and it occurred to me that a book entitled something like The Elitist Bastard's Style Book, and ensubtitled Everything You Learned in English "Grammar" is Wrong and Useless, could fill a valuable niche not quite occupied by either of the above. A certain set of mind finds great joy in the demolition of false intellectual idols.

  24. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

    @Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

    Sehr geehrter Herr Prof. Dr. Pullmann,

    Paraphrasing Kurt Tucholsky:
    Ihre Probleme möchte ich haben!

    Hochachtungsvoll, usw.

    [Pullmann? Wer is das? --GKP]

    Sie, natürlich. It's a harmless joke about your oft-misspelled name.
    – Rhiengold Amen / Ammann / Almahn &c.

  25. Derrick said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

    I don't know if a sincere response is required to this, but I was one of the yadda yadda yaddas, and the thing that I find useful about prescriptivist grammar in any form is that it gives Freshmen Writers something to grasp onto. My personal strategy is to give them the rules so that they feel comfortable, and then teach them how to break them. So far it's been pretty effective. I dunno about book burning though. . .

    [Give them rules, and then tell them how to break them? This is what leads to nervous cluelessness. Why teach a rule that is known to have been invalid for several hundred years? —GKP]

  26. Peter Taylor said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

    Richard Howland-Bolton wrote:

    Will we soon be seeing buses blazoned with:

    There's probably no Grammar.
    Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.

    I hope not. That imperative needs a exclamation mark!

    ;)

  27. Dawn said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

    C'mon. Let's not go crazy here. I found Strunk and White entertaining and useful at a certain point in my life. Is everything in it to be followed religiously? Hell, no. I don't know ANY guide, including the Bible, that should be followed mindlessly. And like the Bible, that's much to argue about in its recommendations–especially because language is such a slippery, evolving thing. But to the extent that it urged brevity, care, and the need for self-revision it performed a service. Today's pervasive sloppy –stream-of-consciousness writing in the workplace and especially on the web suggests it's a service that is still needed and that you no doubt provide–but it doesn't have to include trashing Elements entirely.

    [Dawn: Don't come. —GKP]

  28. Ray Girvan said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 6:40 pm

    Derrick: My personal strategy is to give them the rules so that they feel comfortable, and then teach them how to break them. So far it's been pretty effective

    But does that engender a useful attitude? This is one of the classic stances that perpetuates prescriptivism: that the rules exist, but clever writers know when to break them (thus neatly dissing the usages of famous writers as data points indicative of everyday usage).

  29. Matt said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 6:56 pm

    Thanks for your recommendation: Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams. First, I found it to be illuminating in my own writing decisions. And I have used it for my university's Intro to English Studies course with fine results. Write on!

  30. peter said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 6:57 pm

    Derrick said (April 5, 2010 @ 4:34 pm)

    "My personal strategy is to give them the rules so that they feel comfortable"

    But surely students are only UNcomfortable because of the extent of influence of prescriptivist ideas! It seems to me your teaching approach perpetuates prescriptivism, without undermining it any substantive way, while allowing the teacher to pretend to be anti-prescriptivist. On the other hand, major corporate record labels do pay punk bands to record songs urging anarchy and rebellion.

  31. W. Kiernan said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 7:50 pm

    But I like Strunk-n-White.

    I look at it like it were Mommy. When you were a little tyke you can't deny you needed guidance; Mommy was there, always telling you what to do and not do, what was good or bad. You listened, you obeyed, you learned.

    Similarly, when you are young and pre-literate, there's good old Strunk-n-White, counseling you to include nouns and verbs in the sentences you write. Come on, Mr. Pullam, this is really a good thing, you know! Doing so enables readers of your prose to have some idea what you're trying to say. So time goes on, you grow up, you move from success to success, you become sturdy, self-confident and independent.

    Of course it's inevitable, finally one fine day your desires clash with Mommy's and you grit your teeth and shout out "It's my thing an' I'm gonna do what I wanna do! "OK," thinks Mommy (though she doesn't say it aloud, bless her), "go your own way dear child, but you wouldn't be the big bold person you are today if I hadn't spoon-fed you your Maypo when you were the cute little toddler I remember so fondly!"

  32. W. Kiernan said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

    o dammit man I mispelled your name SORRY SORRY SORRY

    [Don't make a habit of it, Keirnan; I can get ugly. —GKP]

  33. Alan Gunn said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 8:53 pm

    Many years ago I heard Joseph Williams speak about writing. This may have been even before he finished the book you recommended. I remember him saying that the trouble with Strunk and White was that they told you what to do (be direct, omit needless words, etc.) but not how to do it, and that he hoped to fill that gap. Seemed right to me, so I tossed my S & W. It took a few years more to realize that most of the grammar rules I had picked up from them were wrong, too. Good luck with the crusade.

  34. Victoria said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 10:38 pm

    Please let me know if you will be in the Boston area.

    [Hey, the Peter Pan bus takes one hour! I'm a Californian, and in California we count things within an hour by road as being IN our area. In fact close at hand. We'll do up to an hour and a half's driving for dinner. —GKP]

  35. salmin said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 11:14 pm

    Are you going to record that and upload the video somewhere?

  36. Derrick said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 11:58 pm

    To Ray and Peter on Perpetuating Prescriptivism:
    My Freshmen love rules. They want to treat writing like math and science with right and wrong answers, when in writing it's more often good and better. I struggle to instill confidence in them, but if I jump into expressive and free writing, they get so hung up on the grade that they can't write anything worth writing.

    I don't use Strunk and White in my class, but some of the general rules that have been bashed for being prescriptive on this blog (which I still love) are actually very helpful for fledgling writers. (I'm thinking about "Eleven Mistakes about Grammar Mistakes" in particular).

    No, they don't need to memorize the difference between "fewer" and "lesser," but learning to follow a few rules can inspire confidence in previously paralyzed writers.

  37. Aleatha said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 1:01 am

    Do come to UC Santa Cruz! (I know, I know, you just left…) We have bonfires for far lesser reasons, and you'd be the first demagogue on campus I could really get behind.

  38. fs said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 1:17 am

    GKP: I'm curious about your use of the word "pixelized". I always thought the de facto word for this was "pixelated" (presumably by phonetic analogy to the much older word "pixilated"). The Google hits metric only shows about a 2x-3x difference between the two, though.

    [I believe people are saying pixelated when it's an accident of bad photography and pixelized when it's a deliiberate technique of concealment. But I'm not very confident that this distinction has caught on yet. —GKP]

  39. houseboatonstyx said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 4:47 am

    I was disappointed in Strunk and White. Not half as well written as White's stuff in The New Yorker.

    Wonder if he got it from Ross, who was quoted with some quite good style tips in Thurber's THE YEARS WITH ROSS.

  40. Graeme said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 4:57 am

    Imagine you speak OzEnglish and are unfamiliar with either of the Merriam-Webster Concise or Full English Usages. Which is preferable?

    The Full appears to be just a reprint of the 1994 original (or has it been revised?) The Concise appears to date to 2002, but is a couple of hundred pages shorter (and I presume smaller pages since it's paperback). The difference in price isn't great.

    I can't browse to compare. My university library and bookstore have neither: how is that for anti-American-English?

    [Hardly any difference. I've found no significant omissions in the Concise one; there may be a few corrections or updates. Mostly they are on a par: both excellent. Get the cheaper or the newer, whichever you feel like. This is not a choice that much hangs on. The 1994 original is hardback, and the Concise one is paperback, and hardback books lie open on the desk a lot better. But really, whatever. Just get one or the other. —GKP]

  41. alex boulton said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 5:58 am

    We can't all come & GKP can't be everywhere; though it might cut down on the invitations, maybe you could ask the nice people at Brown to video the lecture and put it on line.

  42. Nick Lamb said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 7:52 am

    People do like little books.

    And it is not always a bad thing, K&R is a small book, and certainly the best one on that subject.

    I think the best defence against the Elements is a slightly more compact book of good advice. You might be surprised how much easier it is to get people to switch to a smaller book than to get them to switch because the advice is better.

  43. Sili said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 8:51 am

    C'mon. Let's not go crazy here. I found Strunk and White entertaining and useful at a certain point in my life. Is everything in it to be followed religiously? Hell, no. I don't know ANY guide, including the Bible, that should be followed mindlessly. And like the Bible, that's much to argue about in its recommendations–especially because language is such a slippery, evolving thing.

    It's funny you should bring up the Bible, because you sound like those theologians who try to tear into Dawkins for fighting an strawman god that no religious scholar has considered viable for hundreds of years.

    I can only say to you as I would to those theologians: Go forth and preach to your own kind. Fact is that the Bible and Strunk 'n' White are both used by significant numbers of people as infallible guides that contain all the rules and noöne must break them ever. I don't care about your sophisticated styleology. Real 'murricans don't worship at its altar.

  44. Blake Stacey said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 10:11 am

    This is one of the classic stances that perpetuates prescriptivism: that the rules exist, but clever writers know when to break them (thus neatly dissing the usages of famous writers as data points indicative of everyday usage).

    And, by reducing "grammar" to a set of rules — an etiquette lesson, in all but name — you make it terrifyingly boring for a great many people.

  45. Ellie said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 11:26 am

    Victoria –

    Providence is arguably part of the Boston area…Don't rule it out :)

  46. ...just don't call me late for dinner! said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 11:50 am

    "And, by reducing "grammar" to a set of rules — an etiquette lesson, in all but name — you make it terrifyingly boring for a great many people."

    As opposed to the nonstop thrill-a-minute extravaganza grammar would be if not for those jerkwads S+W.

  47. Walter Underwood said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    "Style: Toward Clarity and Grace" is excellent, and it does have plenty of rules, like making your terms consistant before you add variety, and going from known information to new information. The latter includes a discussion of when passive is graceful — when the object is known and the subject is new.

    A model for a replacement for Strunk and White might be "The Elements of Programming Style", by Kernighan and Plauger. Vastly better than its model, all the examples of poor programming are from other programming textbooks and the advice is about achieving correctness and readability. It feels like they have picked up the spirit of Strunk and White without the bad practices.

    Some maxims:

    Write clearly — don't be too clever.

    When in doubt, use brute force.

    Each module should do one thing well.

    Follow each decision as closely as possible with its associated action.

    Don't diddle code to make it faster — find a better algorithm.

  48. Mike Keliher said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

    Every good writer knows rules are made to be broken. To use your "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs" example, it's only flaming nonsense if it's applied literally and universally.

    Rather, it's an reminder to write with purpose and precision. Don't write "he ran quickly" when you could write "he sprinted" or "he darted" or whatever other verb might well suit your "ran quickly" purpose.

    Strunk and White's guide is no more foolish than waging war against the fruits of its misapplication.

    [Oh, here we go again. People always defend "Write with nouns and verbs" this way! And they always forget to apply it to their own case. Take what Mike has just written above; for example, his adjectivally modified noun phrases good writer and other verb, and his adverbially modified verb phrase applied literally and universally. Where are the single nouns that mean "good writer" or "other verb"? Where is the verb that means "apply literally and universally"? There aren't any. That's not Mike's fault. His writing is just fine. But in almost all cases, the advice that you should get rid of all your adjectives and adverbs by replacing your nouns and verbs is impossible to follow without crippling your ability to say what you were intending to say. White's maxim is stupid even if you just seek to apply it sparingly, because it hardly ever works. (Mike: Don't come. You'd have a horrible evening.) —GKP]

  49. E Devine said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

    I like Zinsser's *On Writing Well* and often recommend it as a replacement for S&W.

  50. Faith said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

    As an undergraduate I was assigned The Little English Handbook for Canadians. Apparently I don't have a copy of it any more (undergraduate was a while ago), but I recall it being useful and not overly concerned about things like passive/active, more into things like when you use commas. As far as I know, it did me no active harm.

    I was going to suggest we have a virtual Strunk & White bonfire: we all burn our copies at a given time, take pictures and post them on a central flikr stream, but as it turns out I don't seem to have kept Strunk & White either.

  51. Mike Keliher said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

    To the contrary, I think I'd really enjoy the discussion — just as I'd enjoy the bickering that's likely to follow!

    "But in almost all cases, the advice that you should get rid of all your adjectives and adverbs by replacing your nouns and verbs is impossible to follow without crippling your ability to say what you were intending to say."

    My point is exactly this (nice passive voice?): No one's saying to get rid of them all, perhaps aside from a misguided teacher who misinterprets the purpose of S&W's tip for strengthened writing. (I'm not accusing you, by any means.)

    Aside: In your Chronicle of Higher Ed piece linked to above, you explained one of S&W's examples of passive writing — "The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired" — is not so. You claim "impaired" throws off aspiring grammarians. Isn't it true, though, that the beginning of the sentence is the weak, indirect, passive part? A rewrite like "He left college because his health became impaired" would do just fine, no? I know, I know: That is but one of three examples, but we're already deep into the woods of Nitpick Forest.

    S&W's apparent willingness to violate of their own suggestions — some defensible, others not — doesn't invalidate those suggestions, does it?

    Thanks for gettin' the old wheels a-spinnin'.

  52. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

    @GKP: So Strunk and White should have written something like, "Look for ways to write with nouns and verbs instead of adjectives and adverbs."?

    @Mike Keliher: Passive or passive voice has a technical meaning in grammar. In English, it has a form of be (or get?) followed by a past participle, and the thing the action happens to (the patient) becomes the subject of the sentence: "His health was impaired by heavy drinking." is an example, contrasted with "Heavy drinking impaired his health."

    There's a paragraph in S&W that starts by talking about the passive voice in the technical sense and moves into examples of weak, indirect writing that rely too heavily on be. Of S&W's four examples after their paragraph on the passive voice, including the impaired-health sentence you quoted, only one has a grammatical passive. Either they didn't understand the technical meaning they were trying to talk about, or they wrote the paragraph badly, not telling the reader they were changing the subject. I incline to the latter theory, but you don't want either possibility in a book on grammar and style.

    The first part of the sentence you quote is indirect, it's weak according to some tastes (including mine), and your version without "was" is better, but it's not in the passive voice.

  53. fred lapides said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

    I am an outsider and know nothing about this sort of thing, but I am left wondering, after reading the post and the comments: If S&W is as weak, bad, dumb as so many here claim it to be, why is it so often used, suggested, required. After all, it has been around a good many years, and many years have passed, enabling critics to badmouth the book, and yet it remains a "classic." How come?

  54. Mike Keliher said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

    Jerry: You're right. Thanks for reminding me of that distinction.

  55. Amy F. said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

    Please film and post lecture to YouTube. Thank you. Will be waiting…

  56. Sili said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

    and yet it remains a "classic." How come?

    Like the Bible S&W is good at reducing the world to simple black and white examples. Both books help to foster the us vs. them mentality – the proselytes follow the kashrut and "write good" and thus are automatically superior to the fools who assume they can think for themselves.

    No one's saying to get rid of them all, perhaps aside from a misguided teacher who misinterprets the purpose of S&W's tip for strengthened writing.

    There you go again with your fancy theology: "Of course noöne literally believe in an old man in the sky with a great flowing beard. That's such a naïve notion and no serious scholar has entertained that idea for centuries."

    Well, then, if that's not the True Meaning™ of your vile little book, then go out there and teach the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells of 'grammar', who do indeed preach from the blade in composition classes everywhere.

    If your book is being misinterpreted then blame the misinterpreters, not those who shine the light of reason on the stupidity of the pronouncements.

  57. peter said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 4:25 pm

    Jerry Friedman said (April 6, 2010 @ 3:03 pm)

    "@GKP: So Strunk and White should have written something like, "Look for ways to write with nouns and verbs instead of adjectives and adverbs."?"

    But why, Jerry, why? Why would anyone think it desirable to have sentences with fewer adjectives and adverbs? Why not make use of the rich and sophisticated and imaginative resources our language gives us, rather than keeping all those great words – and even greater concepts – in a locked back-room cupboard, known-about but unused?

    There may occasions when simplicity and sparseness are desirable in communication, for instance, on road signs or when shouting warnings about fires in crowded theatres. But I can't for the life of me see why such astringent features should be desirable in most other writing, and certainly not in any literary writing. Would you rather have Shakespeare's verbally-lurid and -playful sonnets or their Strunk-and-White-compliant, adjective-free, ten-word summaries? Let's teach our kids to write like Shakespeare or Henry James or Jack Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson, not like some braincell-bereft, minimalist pure mathematician.

  58. lucia said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

    Don't write "he ran quickly" when you could write "he sprinted" or "he darted" or whatever other verb might well suit your "ran quickly" purpose

    Out of curiosity, other than Strunk and White don't like it, what's wrong with saying "ran quickly". It's clear. It's not wordy. The writer may not intend "darted", "sprinted", "raced", "cantered", "trotted" or any number of other things that convey a specific nuance that may not apply.

  59. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

    @Peter: Nobody has suggested locking any word in a cupboard. Not even Strunk and White did that—they used the adjective "indispensable" for those parts of speech. And I qualified my version much more than they did. But when there's a noun that means the same as an adjective plus a noun, or a verb that means the same as a verb plus an adverb or be plus an adjective, or the like, I'll probably prefer the noun or verb.

    If I may commit sacrilege, how would you compare

    And sadly look upon my cursèd fate

    to

    And look upon myself, and curse my fate

    ?

  60. Bloix said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 5:48 pm

    Here's the problem with Prof Pullum's campaign: tens or hundreds of thousands of educated people believe that they are better writers because of Strunk and White – and they are right!

    I look at my sons' high school writing, and it is filled with the sins that Strunk and White preach against. Their writing is wordy, repetitive, disorganized, vague, insecure, pretentious, and filled with big words (often used not-quite-correctly, as if learned from flashcards for the SAT). You can rarely tell what they are trying to say – often because they don't quite know – and they typically pad in order to reach the number of words that the assignment requires. They flounder around from one tense to another, from one point of view to another, with errors in agreement, parallelism, transition, and tone. And my sons are bright boys, who get good grades and take advanced courses. They write like most intelligent and poorly educated high school students. I do what I can with them, but since their papers get A's and B's, they don't pay much heed to me. Once they get to college, they are going to need serious help. They are exactly the kind of young writers who, for several generations now, have grasped at S&W like a life preserver.

    If you strip out the specific rules of S&W, and go with the general thrust of the advice, you get things like:

    Don't be afraid of your reader. Try to communicate, not to impress. Be organized. Be specific. Be clear. Be brief.

    This is a useful message for many young writers, who respond and wind up writing better because of it. And many people feel a tremendous debt of gratitude to S&W, who came to their aid when they were sinking to the bottom of the deep blue sea of freshman comp.

    So, not to be a concern troll or anything -really, not – but, Prof. Pullum, if your campaign is designed to tell people who like S&W that it's 100% unadulterated poppycock, you may not do as well as you'd like. As your goal, I would think, is to dislodge S&W from the curriculum, and not to persuade people that they are idiots (even if they are!), you might consider how to tailor your message so that you don't alienate your audience as soon as you start.

    What you might do, instead – and I'm aware that I may get a blast from you, if I'm not simply banned – is something like this:

    "Hundreds of thousands of intelligent, educated people believe they have gained invaluable advice from S&W. And yet, the specific prescriptions and proscriptions of S&W are demonstrably incorrect. Are these people crazy? Are they suffering from cognitive dissonance? Or did S&W help them in spite of its many manifest errors?

    "As it happens, we can we identify what's useful in S&W and what's poppycock. In doing so, we demonstrate that S&W, although once a very imperfect but somewhat useful tool, is obsolete and should be replaced."

    And then you can launch into S&W is poppycock spiel without already having antagonized 95% of your intended audience.

  61. Bloix said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

    A comment I just wrote didn't show. Perhaps too long? Testing with this.

  62. Anton said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 6:12 pm

    Firstly, I cannot thank you enough for being the first person to have effectively criticised 'The Elements of Style'. I had bought the book for correcting my Master thesis, only to find their section on passive vs. active rather confusing. (I am German, so I thought there was a major difference in what constitutes a passive in English) After some online research I found your critique and was relieved to learn that the book is not quite the flawless classic the endless list of praise printed in the book would have made me believe.

    After this I started to think about why a book that even to me, as a non-native speaker, showed some obvious faults would be so highly praised by people who should know better. Reflecting on my university and school days, I realised that it is exactly the authoritative tone of the authors which makes it so popular. After all, it is far easier to learn some 80 pages of rules than to gain an actual understanding of the English language. Unfortunately the same also applied to most of my fellow students at university, too. They always liked the professor best who offered them the most prescriptive way to achieve a good grade. After all, no matter how silly it may appear to strictly follow a formulaic outline, it is much easier than to create one for yourself. What 'The Elements' offers is an easy route of making you feel that you are a great writer, if only you remember a few rules and apply them correctly. Hence I believe that it is a mix of backward-looking dogmatism and disguised idleness that makes Strunk and White's little book so popular to this day. At least I have no other explanation. I guess in the United States it is called 'tradition'.

  63. Bloix said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 6:29 pm

    More, if I haven't worn out my welcome yet:
    Note how many people are saying that those who believe in S&W are like people who believe in a literal God! They’re mental defectives! They’re crazy people! And, Prof. P, I see that you are expressly disinviting people who are interested in what you have to say but don't already agree with you. Stay away, you say, I'm not talking to you. So who do you think you are talking to?

    Now, we might say you're doing something like the college tours of Prof. PZ Myers, who speaks to atheist and humanist student groups. Rally the anti-S&W troops! Ridicule the pro-S&W troglodytes!

    On the other hand, there differences between fighting for the intellectual respectability of atheism and fighting against the use of a $10 style guide. For one thing, Prof. Myers is not trying to lead religious people to reject their faith in God – he is trying to organize the non-believers who already exist. He has a sympathetic audience waiting to be energized. You, on the other hand, are presumably trying to persuade college instructors and students to turn away from S&W and toward better style guides. You are trying to attact and persuade an interested but skeptical audience.

    Perhaps I’m wrong about this – perhaps what you really want to do is to proclaim that people who like S&W are idiots. If so, you can’t do better than to follow Prof. Myers’ example. And who knows, maybe there's a silent majority of non-S&W-believers just waiting to be energized into rising up and demanding that S&W be removed from the curriculum!

    But if there isn't any such widespread passive dislike of S&W, and if what you’re trying to do is to make a difference in how English comp is taught, then you have to try to empathize with a target audience of people who have somewhat warm and fuzzy feelings about S&W. This doesn’t mean you need to respect it – maybe they are idiots, after all – but you need to understand it.

  64. Jerry Vinokurov said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 6:50 pm

    Wow, this is exciting. I'm a grad student at Brown and I'll definitely be coming to your talk. Even in high school I loathed S&W and resented having its stultifying rules forced on me, and I'm pleased to discover that I share this sentiment with a reputable linguist.

  65. Onymous said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

    If you strip out the specific rules of S&W, and go with the general thrust of the advice, you get things like:

    Don't be afraid of your reader. Try to communicate, not to impress. Be organized. Be specific. Be clear. Be brief.

    If the entire useful content of the book can be summed up in a sentence you don't need to give your kids a book; you need to spend time showing them how to use that advice.

    Further, the problem with saying "well if you just listen to this part of the book" or "well you can ignore this part in certain circumstances" is that in order to know which parts are important or not, you have to already be a good writer, handily defeating the point.

  66. Amber said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 8:07 pm

    The foremost charm of that book is probably the very small number of words between the covers.

    To supplant it, how about The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman? It also contains rather few words, but Lukeman's few words make sense.

    http://www.writersstore.com/product.php?products_id=212

  67. Bloix said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 8:41 pm

    Onymous, I'm not advocating for S&W. Prof P convinced me a long time ago that the book is not good. I'm simply pointing out that calling people who do like it idiot followers of a charlatan may not be the most persuasive way of showing them the error of their ways.

  68. Sili said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 8:48 pm

    Ridicule is a very effective weapon. We may very well not be able to save any of the converts this way, but it may should* be helpful in winning over the next generations and immunising against the virus.

    *not a genuine double modal

  69. Mark F. said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 9:08 pm

    Sili — in what sense is it not a genuine double modal? Are you just saying that the double modals are a limited set, and it's not among the acceptable ones? (That seems to be true for me and other double-modal-users I know.) Or are you saying that your meaning is different from what it would mean as a double modal. In that case I'm not so sure.

  70. Bloix said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 9:38 pm

    And one more thing –

    One of the reasons it took a long time for me to accept that W&S is a bad book is that it’s written by E.B. White – not merely the most popular American essayist of the twentieth century but also the beloved author of Charlotte’s Web. Undeniably, White could write. So why couldn’t he write about writing?

    Prof Pullum’s answer is that he was mendacious – that he intentionally wrote a bad book with the conscious purpose of teaching people to write poorly. That assertion, with genuine respect, seems to me to be nuts.

    There really is an interesting epistemological question here. White knew how to write, and from all appearances he believed that he knew what he knew. But he was wrong. What he thought he knew was untrue.

    How can that be? And does linguistics have any light to shed on the matter? After all, linguistics routinely studies aspects of knowledge that people are not consciously aware of. Are there studies of the discrepancies between what people think they know about grammar and how they actually perform? If so, does White conform to what those studies have found? A discussion of White as an example of the failure to know to what one knows would, I think, be a lecture worth attending.

    Anyway, simply as a matter of strategy, if a Scottish professor of linguistics tells an audience of 20-something Americans that the author of Charlotte’s Web was a twisted evil charlatan, his reception might not be as positive as it might otherwise be. As they say, just saying.

    [I get so tired of people assuming, from my present affiliation, that I'm a Scot and therefore unqualified or impertinent or something. At least a couple of the people who wrote letters attacking my Chronicle of Higher Education piece did it. I thought, ethnic stereotyping is the best argument they can think of? As a US citizen with 25 years of service in the University of California behind me (one of numerous Americans teaching in Edinburgh, by the way), I would have thought I could at least be treated as something other than an irrelevant foreigner. The birthers have got me on a technicality: I do happen to have been born in Scotland. But I didn't grow up here or build any of the earlier part of my career here. So I hope people will argue against me on grounds of accuracy about the facts of grammar, not on a misperception of my ethnicity. —GKP]

  71. Bloix said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 11:33 pm

    And one more more thing-
    Charlotte's Web is about the importance of language. It is a literal story of the triumph of the written word over death. I don't see any way to conclude that the creator of Charlotte and Wilbur could possibly have been in bad faith in his effort to teach others to write as well as he could. So how could it be that he made such a hash of it? How could he fail to see that his own writing did not follow his prescriptions?

    That's what is so interesting about S&W. The fact that it's a bad book is just the starting point.

  72. Private Zydeco said,

    April 7, 2010 @ 1:46 am

    In other news, Borders Books does not — nay, can not — bring it-
    selves to stock Teh Cambridge Grammar of the English language.
    For whatever unreason.

  73. Edward Vitasek said,

    April 7, 2010 @ 2:58 am

    @Bloix

    I suspect White failed to write well about writing because of confirmation bias and selective attention. As a reader, he probably noticed "bad" writing, and when he spotted constructions he recognised from Strunk's teachings he'd automatically blame them. It's hard to become aware of automated skills, such as talking or writing. That's why we need the scientific method, in the first place: to break through stuff like confirmation bias and selective attention.

    For example, "Write with nouns and verbs," is White's edition. I don't think it was in Strunk's orignal booklet. If you read the section, you get:

    Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs…

    This is all you get in terms of a warning. The rest of the section (about twice as much text) is singing the praise of "good adjectives" (with a closing sentence repeating the title of the section). You won't learn what distinguishes good from bad adjectives. You won't learn what the "rule" is supposed to accomplish in the first place. It's not the adjective's fault that noun is weak or inaccuracte, after all.

    "Bad" adjectives confirm the rule; "good" adjectives either pass unnoticed or serve as exceptions (as we don't follow rules to the death). That leaves the rule at a level of abstraction where it's impossible to attack. Real writing takes place far below that level. At worst, the rule says nothing but that adjectives and adverbs are modifiers (and ignore predicative adjectives).

    There may be a useful methodology associated with the rule (such as replacing "ran quickly" with "sprinted", etc.), but it's a problem-solving tool not a diagnostic one. The way the rule is phrased makes no difference between fixing problems and diagnosing them.

    You can see the confusion between diagnosis and problem solving in Strunk's text, in the infamous section about the active/passive voice – the four examples that contain almost no passives. Strunk's saying, rather fuzzily, that you can exchange "perfunctory expressions" for a "tansitive in the active voice". In this case, there is a difference between "Avoid the passive voice" and "use the active voice", but it's confusingly phrased. All of Strunk's original examples contain a "transitive in the active voice" in the re-write of the "bad" sentence. White (or whoever else edited that part) didn't understand that. He replaced ["could be heard" --> "reached our ears"] with ["could be heard" --> "came with dawn"]. We now have an "intransitive in the active voice". Is this is a significant change? Stunk may have known; I don't. But it does contradict the literal words in the sentence the example is supposed to illustrate.

    It's like the phrases are empty lines that sound nice – to be filled with whatever meaning you, personally, find useful. As soon as you associate the catchphrase with personal methodology (which is mostly practical and ill reflected) you have the illusion that the catch phrase is useful. But it isn't any more useful than:

    Don't use the letter x. It's Thanks not Thanx. Of course, the letter x isn't always bad. It comes in handy when you want to write about Xylophones.

    If you associate these catchphrases with writing methodology that works well for you, they'll sound – to you – like the truth. But if you don't have any methodologies yet, they won't help, because they're – at best – empty and – at worst – misleading.

    If you want to talk about a specific construction, I'd argue that – at least initially – you're better off with minimal pairs, i.e. with sentences that differ only in the element of style under discussion. Else you risk misattribution of awkwardness.

    Example: Stephen King in On Writing quotes Elements on the passive voice and replaces "The meeting will be held at seven o'clock." with "The meeting's at seven." No more passive voice. But it's not a conversion (which would be: "We will hold the meeting at seven o'clock.") Instead it changes the verb (hold –> be), uses a contraction, and uses "seven" instead of "seven o'clock". My impression is that King simply prefers an informal style to a formal one. (Similarly, White's editing of the passive voice sections transforms a rooster into a cock. Same suspicion, but weaker.)

  74. Edward Vitasek said,

    April 7, 2010 @ 3:01 am

    Me:

    …is White's edition

    …is White's addition

    Sorry.

  75. Sili said,

    April 7, 2010 @ 8:49 am

    Sili — in what sense is it not a genuine double modal?

    I'm not a natural double modal user. I vacillated between which one to use, and decided to put in both, because I recall prof Pullum writing about double modals. I don't think I'd ever produce the form in daily speech.

  76. ...just don't call me late for dinner! said,

    April 7, 2010 @ 12:37 pm

    Bloix makes some excellent points. It seems the purpose of this speech is not to persuade people against S+W, as the pro-S+W'ers aren't even allowed in the room. It's to sit around and talk about how all the people who hate S+W are incredibly smart and discerning, and anyone who disagrees is so stupid – even evil! – as to be undeserving of our attention.

  77. Bloix said,

    April 7, 2010 @ 1:02 pm

    Edward Vitasek – the Stephen King quotation is hilarious. It's like something from Ask Mr Language Person.

  78. Sili said,

    April 7, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

    Undeniably, White could write. So why couldn’t he write about writing?

    Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.

    It would seem that those who can, should also stick to doing and stay away from teaching.

    It's perfectly easy to be good at something without understanding why. I can ride a bike, but that doesn't mean I can lecture on the physiology of balance. A blacksmith can make excellent horseshoes and swords, without being able to hold forth on metallurgy. Likewise I hope most chemists have the good sense not to tell a cook or a potter how to do their work.

    The problem with language is that everybody speaks, and they think that that automatically makes them experts on the subject. And so we have Australian teachers thinking that they understand grammar better than Rodney Huddleston and E. B. White thinking that he has the wherewithal to write a book on style.

    Come to think of it, it's likely Dunning-Kruger at work. The lack of humility to understand when one's in over one's head.

  79. 4ndyman said,

    April 7, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

    Pullum: Have you ever considered writing an even nicer little book that will be so much more helpful with people's writing when they're in college that they'll carry it everywhere they go and give it to all their students, etc.?

    Perhaps call it "Elements of True Style" or "Elements of Stylish Writing" so it'll fall next to that other book in an alphabetical listing, so people can choose? (Maybe you should publish it as "Geoffrey Pullum Strunkman," too.)

  80. Andrew Ferguson said,

    April 7, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

    You know right here at Edinburgh Stratis Viglas recommends that book to all postgraduate Informatics students :(

  81. Derrick said,

    April 7, 2010 @ 6:07 pm

    I tend to agree with the "thousands of people have been helped by this–how can they all be wrong?" argument, and also the "White could write" argument. Also, for the record, I'm deeply offended by the phrase "those who can't, teach" in regards to writing.

    Now, my opinion on rules. Every writer knows how to follow grammar rules and style rules and other prescriptivist nonsense. It's great stuff for communicating effectively in normal, everyday situations. We want to read stuff that is easy to grasp and follows a pattern that we are used to. that's the purpose of rules. Yes, there are perfectly acceptable alternatives as far as meaning goes, but not for clarity, familiarity, and brevity.

    Every writer also knows that rules are meant to be broken, especially when there is something important to say–it's how we distinguish those parts as readers. I don't see how this can be such a strange concept. Rules, all rules, when we speak about writing, are meant to be both followed and broken, depending upon the occasion. In order to do this effectively, however, you must know the rules.

  82. jamessal said,

    April 7, 2010 @ 8:23 pm

    I tend to agree with the "thousands of people have been helped by this–how can they all be wrong?" argumen

    Thousands of people who go on fad diets lose weight, but they could be doing it without harming themselves.

  83. Private Zydeco said,

    April 7, 2010 @ 8:58 pm

    Has a documentary history of the making of T.E.O.S. ever
    shown up, to anyone's superior recollection? Evident as
    it now is (vis-a-vis the many anecdotes of scribal pupil-
    teacherdom hitherto recounted by Dr. Pullum & others
    here on the Log) that biography material touching on the
    interactions White and Strunk had does exists, is there
    no complete, accurate chronicling of the contentious and
    sublime opuscule's life story itself, from conceptual in-
    fancy on through its formative college years and a fully
    developed sagelihood? That is, a concise, single volume
    book on the topic, whilst on the topic of concise, single-
    volume books?

  84. Private Zydeco said,

    April 7, 2010 @ 9:35 pm

    Back to the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language
    issue: really, what's one to do with a whole C.G.E.L. worth
    of accumulated Border's gift cards if they don't — ho ho,
    will not! — get over themselves and start making it avail-
    able to a buying clientele? Could someone at Cambridge
    U. Press be induced to talk some sense into (read "extort")
    them into it?

  85. Graeme said,

    April 7, 2010 @ 10:41 pm

    Thank you Geoff for the advice. Since the cheaper and the newer is the concise paperback I'll blithely go with that version.

  86. Kjell Skaht said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 12:23 am

    "Sili said,
    April 7, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

    Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach."

    As a blanket statement, that's as wrong as two left shoes.

    Some teachers – the good ones – are very good at what they teach, teach it because they enjoy doing it and learning about it, and want to pass that joy on to others.

  87. Spectre-7 said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 12:28 am

    Thank you Geoff for the advice. Since the cheaper and the newer is the concise paperback I'll blithely go with that version.

    Not sure if it makes much difference to you, but you can access the entirety of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage through Google Books. It's one of my top five favorite internet resources, and is but a mouse-click away.

  88. PC said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 2:03 am

    How 'bout using Garner's American Usage guide as an alternative? Nice coupling of actual usage data with unobtrusive editorializing for stickier situations. It won't impart a particular "style" aside from conscientious avoidance of unnecessary ambiguity (my, that's sexy, isn't it?), but if one's "style" comes from some fusty usage/grammar guide, one has to question just how stylish one actually is.

  89. houseboatonstyx said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 5:28 am

    Heh. An odd thing is, that Ross might have preferred 'ran quickly' to 'sprinted'.

    One example in THE YEARS WITH ROSS was something like changing "His Nantucket house is full of antiques" to "He has a house in Nantucket and it is full of antiques."

  90. houseboatonstyx said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 5:32 am

    [[For example, "Write with nouns and verbs," is White's edition. I don't think it was in Strunk's orignal booklet. If you read the section, you get:

    Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs…]]

    If that's Strunk himself, he writes better than White did in S&W. Maybe someone should do STRUNK & BLACK.

  91. Ray Girvan said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 6:51 am

    Derrick: Every writer knows how to follow grammar rules and style rules and other prescriptivist nonsense. It's great stuff for communicating effectively in normal, everyday situations. We want to read stuff that is easy to grasp and follows a pattern that we are used to.

    Good argument. So why do some of the rules countermand constructs that we are used to in normal everyday situations? (for instance, prepositions at ends of sentences, singular "they", use of accusative "who", etc).

  92. peter said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 11:01 am

    Ray Girvan said (April 8, 2010 @ 6:51 am):

    "So why do some of the rules countermand constructs that we are used to in normal everyday situations? (for instance, prepositions at ends of sentences, singular "they", use of accusative "who", etc)."

    So that social distinctions may be created and maintained between those who follow the rules and those who don't. Like the prohibition against eating with elbows resting on the table, the main purpose of these rules is not to do with language, but with social distinctions and control.

  93. Timothy Martin said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

    @Derrick: I'm afraid I have to disagree with you completely regarding your formulation of how rules work. Here is the way I understand it, and I think you will see that this makes sense: Real rules are not meant to be broken. However, 100% accurate rules about something as complex as writing are hard to come up with. So people come up with "rules of thumb," as it were, which aren't completely accurate, but serve people well much of the time. That is why it appears that "rules are meant to be broken, and good writers know when to break them." It is because it is difficult for us humans to formalize exactly what it is we are doing when we engage in good writing, and so we come up with a rule that seems to describe something close to what we're doing, but still inexact. Take the example from S&W above:

    "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs."

    This may be good advice, but it is at best a "rule of thumb." There is nothing inherently wrong with adjectives and adverbs, only with certain ways of using them, so a rule that says unilaterally "not to write with them" obviously cannot be accurate. For the real rule, you would have to look at sentences that are best written without adj. and adv, and sentences that are best written with them, and find the property that underlines both examples. That will give you the true rule of how to write well with adj. and adv.

    Now why does this matter? Because the point of teaching is not to let students figure out for themselves what the "real rules" are, because some of them never will. Teachers and authors should put their best analytical skills to work in formulating what the real rules behind good writing are, and then teach them. What S&W basically did was put a bunch of rules of thumb in their book and left students on their own to figure out when to break them. That's sloppy science and sloppy teaching.

  94. peter said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

    Timothy Martin said (April 8, 2010 @ 1:26 pm)

    "There is nothing inherently wrong with adjectives and adverbs, only with certain ways of using them"

    This is profoundly mistaken, IMHO. There is nothing wrong with any way of using any part of speech. There ARE patterns of usage that are more (or, in other cases, less) common in actual language use, with those frequencies depending on the occasion and nature of use and the community of users, and varying over time. To assert that a particular language usage is "wrong" (or "right") is to assert a moral judgment on usage, an action which I believe to morally reprehensible. It is morally reprehensible because, by judging the usage of others, the person doing so is also (implicitly or explicitly) asserting a moral right to make such a judgment. No one has such a right.

  95. Timothy Martin said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

    Hi peter,

    I wasn't using "wrong" in the moral sense of the word, so you're going down a logical track that I assure you I did not intend. I meant the word "wrong" as a shorthand way of saying that certain writing is "bad style," or to be more concrete, that it is not as pleasing to the ear, does not flow as well (in cases where you want it to flow), is not as vivid, etc. as better ways of writing.

    A concrete example
    Good version: The little girl went up to the door and knocked.Not so good version: The little girl went up to the door. Then she knocked.

    The second sentence is not as pleasing as the first, due to its unnecessary disjointedness. Saying that this is the "wrong" way to write is just shorthand for saying that it does not accomplish the goal of the writer. Assuming the person who writes the above is telling a story, and that they wish to tell their story in an engaging way, it will not do to jar readers' brains with disjointed sentences. Similarly, when I said there are "wrong" ways of using parts of speech, I was saying that there are ways of writing that are inherently less pleasing to the human mind, and, if one's goal is to write in a pleasing manner, using adj. and adv. in unpleasing ways would be contraindicated.

  96. Sili said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

    Anyway, argue about the grammatical accuracy of what I've said, but don't just dismiss me for being "Scottish". —GKP

    Of course some of us are likely to dismiss you for being American, whereas Scottishness is considered a mark of quality …

  97. Bloix said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 5:16 pm

    The little girl went up to the door and knocked.
    The little girl went up to the door. Then she knocked.

    If this is a ghost story, and we know that there's some-thing-scary-behind-that-door-that-the-little-girl-doesn't-know-about, then the second sentence is the better one.

  98. Bloix said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 6:33 pm

    Oh dear. I simply assumed that, because you were born in Scotland, educated in the UK, resident in Scotland, and a professor at a Scottish university, that you are Scottish. There's no indication of an American upbringing on your vita. No offense was intended.

    One reason I assumed that you'd grown up in the UK is that you seem to lack anostalgic fondness for Charlotte's Web. I inferred from your vitriolic attacks on White as a person that you had no childhood familiarity with him. But perhaps you'd have preferred for Wilbur to have been turned into bacon.

    As for dismissing your views, I've already said, and I'll say again, that I agree with you. What's more, you've persuaded me. When I first chanced upon LL, I had a faint recollection of S&W as a helpful little thing from back in my undergraduate past. Now I believe that it's a bad book. I'm one of your success stories.

    The problem I have is that on the one hand there's E.B. White, hero of American letters, creator of the modern American essay, author of the most beloved children's book ever written on American soil — and on the other hand, there's Geoffrey Pullum, a professor of a subject I've never studied at a school no one I know has heard of in a city I know nothing about in a country I've never set foot in (and I'm perfectly willing to admit that all this ignorance is my own grievous fault) — and what does this Prof. Pullum say? He says that E.B. White is a charlatan.

    Well, I know for a fact that E.B. White is not a charlatan, because I know that I cried when my dad read me Charlotte's Web and my children cried when I read it to them, and the man that made up that story is no charlatan.

    All right, my tongue was in my cheek when I wrote that, but it wasn't in there all that far.

    It's one thing to say that E.B. White wrote a bad style guide and another to say that E.B. White is a bad man. You've persuaded me of the former, but I'm not coming along with you to the latter, which for some reason seems to be the real point of this campaign. You have a shot at killing S&W, but White himself is a bigger man than you are and if you insist on going after him personally, you run a risk that he's going to take you down. Even if you're right and he was a charlatan. Ahab might have been right, for all we know, and fat lot of good it did him.

    [Listen, once and for all: no quarrels with Charlotte's Web. It's a beautiful story of friendship, beautifully written. White was a fine craftsman. And then he presumptuously turned to pontificating about grammar and style, and embarrassed himself in my opinion. But my critique is only of the latter vein of his work, not about his essays or his novels. —GKP]

  99. Timothy Martin said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 8:30 pm

    Bloix said, "If this is a ghost story, and we know that there's some-thing-scary-behind-that-door-that-the-little-girl-doesn't-know-about, then the second sentence is the better one."

    Right, but notice how you supplied a reason for your judgement? That's exactly what I'm talking about – there is always a reason why writing something one way has a certain effect on the reader. Rules are just reasons turned into prescriptions. "If you want to have effect X on the reader, do this. If you want your writing to flow, don't make disjointed sentences. If you want to build suspense, drawing things out is more effective." Saying that these rules were meant to be broken is just admitting that you didn't have them right in the first place.

  100. Timothy Martin said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 8:33 pm

    PS: Bloix, I love a lot of the other points you're making.

    Anton, too.

  101. Bloix said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 9:33 pm

    Yes, I've buckled on my armor and I'm out here on the green field of battle bravely wielding my broadsword, thwack, thwack!

    Or, another way to look at it is that a distinguished professor in a field of scientific study is graciously providing time and space an anonymous self-professed ignoramus.

    Every once in a while I have to remind myself how generous these bloggers are. Thank you, Professor Pullum.

  102. Edward Vitasek said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 1:42 am

    @houseboatonstyx:

    If that's Strunk himself, he writes better than White did in S&W. Maybe someone should do STRUNK & BLACK.

    No, this is White. Sorry for being unclear. I meant to say that the rule "write with nouns and verbs" is White's addition and does not exist in Strunk's original teaching aid. The section uses more space to praise good adjectives than to explain the rule.

  103. houseboatonstyx said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 2:30 am

    "The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place." — This sounds more like the style of 1918 (Strunk) than of 1957 (White).

    Okay, here's an example of my gripe with White: "forty-three-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English". Why the hell didn't he practice (in S&W) what he preached? Why does that sentence need 'the case for' and 'in the use of' and those noun forms? Why not a sentence about 'forty-three-pages on an English clean, accurate, and brief'?

    His New Yorker writing wasn't full of unnecessary, pretentious stuff; it WAS clean and brief. Dunno about Charlotte's Web.

  104. Edward Vitasek said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 4:54 am

    This sounds more like the style of 1918 (Strunk) than of 1957 (White).

    Maybe. Your quote comes from the introduction. Go down a couple of lines and you'll find this:

    Somewhat audaciously, and in an attempt to give my publisher his money's worth, I added a chapter called "An Approach to Style," setting forth my own prejudices, my notions of error, my articles of faith.

    The rule about nouns and verbs is number four of that chapter. It is White. Maybe it's been more closely inspired by Stunk's style? The chapter was written in 1957, the introduction, I think, in 1979.- so that wouldn't surprise me.

  105. Private Zydeco said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 5:20 am

    Take note that Dr. Pullum has not actually employed the word "charlatan" in reference to Strunk, White, &/or their pet treatise at all in the entirety of the discourse composing this thread, though, he does seem to hint at as much (in what measure of earnest is perhaps best not said here). But the fact that linguistic professionalism in Strunk & even White's day could not have been what it is now, even if perhaps it could have been better, should not be completely ignored. Sign of the times?

    Strunk & white have concocted a curious patent medicine together, but the Linguistics of today came into its own not but seventy-five years ago. Ergo, their apparatus was not so well developed as that which present-day grammarians now employ. This means that since neither had suffered any ill-success at taking large draughts of their own homebrew, they fancied a fuller-scale distribution of their trademark stuff of genius. But a brewery
    is not a pharmaceutical lab by any stretch of the beer goggles, be it whatever they are attached to one's face with. The distilling of a Sunday paper's worth of airy, propadeutic koans on "good" i.e. palatable writing did produce a great-tasting long-lasting cup of tea, but it's just that. It was not the mapping of the
    morphosyntactic genome that is behind the likes of projects such as Professor P. himself spent five years outside of teaching at U.C. Santa Cruz to help complete. This is itself only so much analogizing, but the point stands to reason.

  106. Private Zydeco said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 5:26 am

    White's standing as an accomplished author are well preserved in the form of Charlotte's Web, and the validity overall of his creative genius is not so dubious as would be, say, were he a plagiarist. But their underqualification as linguists selon actual descriptive Linguistics proper does leave Strunk & White quite in a bad way of sorts, and T.E.o.S. in need of more than just a little polishing up; all said and done this may be an instance more of injudiciousness and bluster than a will to harmfully deceive. It is one thing to be a dilettante and another to swindle. Then again, it's one thing to be a coral snake, and another to be a robin.

  107. Private Zydeco said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 7:38 am

    Then there are those books on writing which are style manuals after a fashion but aren't technically instructive. "First Person Singular", an anthology of essays by several authors & poets edited by Joyce Carol Oates, comes to mind as one such text. "Why Write?" by Paul Auster, while extremely slender, is another. T.E.o.S., though, takes a whiff of both aloof-ness and of brass tacks. They went for wizardry and poise, but didn't commit enough to being true grammarians to publish the full-on Farmer's Almanac of guidebooks instead of just a few cake recipes.

  108. houseboatonstyx said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

    Edward Vitasek said,
    April 9, 2010 @ 4:54 am

    Edward, I'm not sure what the issue is here. I'm just saying that I dislike the style White used in S&W, but S&W also has bits of a better (and older) style which I assume would be Strunk's.

    Oddly, I couldn't find a copy of Strunk's own version, though it would be well into public domain. Still, I didn't look very hard.

  109. T-Rex said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

    Judging from this blog, I count myself very lucky to have entirely avoided the book.

    Professor Pullum must be overjoyed at the Richard Dawkins comparison! Bloix makes excellent points about Professor Pullum's apparent attitude towards his audience risking the alienation potential converts, and of course this is exactly what Dawkins does. But by God does everyone know who Richard Dawkins is and what his topic is!

    The chief downsides of this approach are that many people are so horrified by his idea that they don't bother to research his arguments, and vice versa. In my opinion, that's because most people aren't receptive to reasoned argument, and there's not much to be done about it. But grammar is a marginally less belief-based area than religion, so I reckon Professor Pullum is right to hope that he'll have a slightly easier time than Professor Dawkins. It's still very much a hope though ,so good luck!

  110. Edward Vitasek said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

    Edward, I'm not sure what the issue is here. I'm just saying that I dislike the style White used in S&W, but S&W also has bits of a better (and older) style which I assume would be Strunk's.

    Nothing really. Just me nitpicking origins.

    Oddly, I couldn't find a copy of Strunk's own version, though it would be well into public domain. Still, I didn't look very hard.

    http://www.crockford.com/wrrrld/style.html

  111. Non-sequitur, just before bedtime... said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

    Elemets of Stinge, more like. A set of Language Legos with some of the pieces missing.

  112. houseboatonstyx said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

    http://www.crockford.com/wrrrld/style.html

    Thank you. From quick sampling, I'd say that Strunk practices what he preaches better than White did. It would be fun to count up which man had the most violations of these Rules.

    Strunk was actually pleasant to read here.

  113. Ryan said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 9:41 pm

    If you're still taking requests please please please please come to the University of Oregon (maybe you can disabuse some of the creative writing department and school of journalism people of their notions about S&W, like it being suitable as a college textbook).

  114. Non-sequitur, just before bedtime... said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 1:24 am

    What about dropping in at Reed as well, should detachments of the legion advance so far into the Western hemisphere. Do Portland?

  115. Marcus Schwartz said,

    April 14, 2010 @ 2:44 am

    So the talk must be over by now, right? I keep refreshing CNN's cover page, but I don't see any coverage of the riots or fires. Did they drop the ball on this one?

    Or, to put it another way, how did it go?

  116. Amy West said,

    April 14, 2010 @ 8:41 am

    It was a good talk, as expected. But, I think he was addressing the wrong audience: I think he was already preaching to the choir. He needed to be addressing *all writing instructors* and *all faculty* at your institutions.

    I was pleased to hear him speak about teaching students "self-defensive grammar" because that is one of my goals in my composition class. I know of many prescriptivists in my department and other departments (one biology professor is notorious) who will "correct" students' language/writing. Just on Monday we discussed the "Don't start a sentence with a conjunction/'however'" lie because I had written a sentence up on the board starting with "But." So, I really need Dr. Pullum to come up to Worcester State as well.

    But we can't have him everywhere: we need a descriptivst student handbook. Plain and simple. Students are not going to use MWDEU because it's too large. My department uses Hacker for all its composition sections: the intention is for the students to have it for reference for their 4 years. So, now I'm thinking of going through her grammar sections as a guide to creating a descriptivist self-defense grammar for my students, using MWDEU, CGEL, etc. But what I really want is a descriptivist student handbook jointly authored by Pullum and Jan "the best language writer in America" Freeman. Because they're smarter than me/I am.

  117. Amy West said,

    April 14, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

    Actually, by college it's too late. Many of my freshmen have been exposed to and tortured by Strunk and White in high school. What we have to do is not only get to the writing instructors, and the English faculty, we have to get to the HS English teachers.

  118. fred lapides said,

    April 14, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

    I had been taught that it went like this:
    Those who can write, write.
    Those who cannot write, teach.
    Those who cannot write or teach become administrators.

  119. Private Zydeco said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 5:40 pm

    That is to say, while TEOS is gnomic CGEL is genomic.

  120. elizabeth bourne said,

    April 18, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

    Dear Mr. Pullum,

    Could you please come enlighten us in Seattle? We have volcanoes, although sleeping. Perhaps your campaign will rouse them from their years of slumber. We, too, have both naked students and donuts, though not, I think, in conjunction. Our coffee is top-notch, and best of all, the rain is stopping.

    I think you ought to come. The volcano-who-cannot-be-named-by-non-native-speakers will likely go on with its amazing display for years until we are all in some sort of volcanic eternal winter. Come enjoin us to grammatical freedom here at the end of the world.

    I have several copies of Strunk & White to burn.

  121. Steven Capsuto said,

    April 19, 2010 @ 7:42 am

    One of my English teachers handed us copies of Strunk and White back in the 1980s. I stopped reading when I got to S&W's bizarre claim that the word "finalize" was an "abomination."

  122. EricD said,

    April 23, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

    As an outsider here, can I suggest that we are perhaps overlooking the title of 'Elements' ? The emphasis is on style, not grammar.

    The preference for nouns and verbs over adjectives and adverbs, is perhaps not a matter of right or wrong, but rather a question of choosing what is appropriate for the message, the medium, the audience and the author's intentions. Or even just their personal idiosyncratic whim ?

    I am even less of an artist than a linguist, but perhaps an analogy from a different field may help here. It is as though Mondrian, Hockney, and Matisse wrote that Seurat, Turner and Da Vinci were wrong for using subtle, pastel or subdued colours, rather than bold, saturated, primary colours.

    It may also be a stereotypical 'Old World' vs. 'New World' distinction. Or a tendency of modernism, similar to audio compression in popular music.

    I have also come across the question of unconscious technical ability, and even the ability to teach in the fields of dancing and cycling (I don't mean simultaneously!). I was taught to dance Modern Jive by a dance community that don't know if their feet go "Left-Right-Left-Right" or "Left-Left-Right-Right" !
    There is some debate about whether to teach cyclists and motorcyclists 'counter-steering' : whether to push the left handlebar grip away from you to turn left or turn right !

    In practice we can learn (and teach) subconsciously, even to the extent of doing the opposite of what we think we are doing !

    P.S. I added a comment to the Gerund/Thing thread
    Might explain a bit more about why I am here !
    Sorry if I kill the discussion : anti-trolling can also be fun !

  123. JahDave said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

    Book filled with nonsense is revered by millions. If not substance, could the explanation be style?

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