Worthless grammar edicts from Harvard

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Greg Mankiw, the Harvard economics professor, maintains a blog for undergraduate economics students. On it, back in 2006, he placed a guide to good economics writing. And I fear that you may already have guessed what, with sinking heart, I correctly foresaw that I would find therein.

It's a mixed bag of recommendations that he provides, in a thoroughly random order that I will not follow. He has some anodyne recommendations about avoiding wordiness and blather — in fact he is rather repetitive and wordy on the topic of wordiness: in separate points (which I abbreviate and paraphrase here) he insists you should

  • stay focused and cut anything irrelevant,
  • keep sentences short and use short words,
  • avoid unnecessary words,
  • keep it simple,
  • avoid jargon,
  • use metaphors and anecdotes, and
  • keep your writing personal.
There is surely some overlap in the first three or four of those.

He also has some genuine style-sheet proposals that I have no quarrel with because they are nothing to do with sentence construction: he wants his students to keep their writing self-contained (i.e., avoid forward as-I-will-show-later references, and references to other works); he recommends avoiding footnotes; and he warns against inventing new acronyms. This is fine with me: Greg is within his rights to dictate such formal aspects of his students' papers, just as a publisher will tell you whether or not to put journal titles in italics.

He cites three highly specific word peeves that he thinks are especially important (long run is a noun but long-run is an adjective; the same holds for short(-)run; saving is a flow but savings is a stock). This too seems like reasonable advice.

But he also gives some specific instructions (of a disappointingly familiar kind) to avoid certain perfectly ordinary constructions or devices. He says you should "Use adverbs sparingly" (everyone does; adverbs are not at all common compared to nouns and verbs), and then unwittingly repeats himself by warning against very (which is, of course, an adverb, so that has been covered), and repeats himself some more in a recommendation against certain modal adjuncts (he cites of course, clearly, and obviously).

He says "Positive statements are more persuasive than normative statements" without defining either positivity or normativity, and I admit I am not sure what he means; possibly he means you should try to say what is the case rather than what ought to be or can be the case, in which case he is advising against modal auxiliaries.

My heart began to sink when I found he advises against using the passive voice (expressing that instruction by saying "The passive voice is avoided by good writers' — I am assuming this is economist humor) — a long-standing, indeed tired, old theme (see here for discussion).

And ultimately (perhaps you guessed this was coming), he says:

Buy a copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style. Also, William Zinsser's On Writing Well. Read them—again and again and again.

Oh, dear. Again and again and again, American professors with absolutely no background in English grammar insist that their 21st-century college students should study this unpleasantly dogmatic little work, written by men born in the 19th century. But the dictats given in The Elements of Style range from the redundant to the insane. Anyone who read the book again and again and again, and took its edicts literally, would do disastrous damage to their writing.

Most of those who dip into it come out with some signs of a nervous cluelessness about grammar: they get edgy around adverbs and prepositions and instances of the verb be, without exactly knowing why they feel like that, or what they should do about it.

I am quite convinced that The Elements of Style harms students more than it helps them. Yet the Google search term {Strunk White "Elements of Style" site:harvard.edu} calls up nearly ninety hits. Replacing harvard.edu by mit.edu yields more, about 140. At Princeton it's 23. At Stanford it's about 95. The finest universities in America continue to insist that this awful little compilation of century-old peevery is an important accessory for today's literate student. It isn't. The difference between carrying around The Elements of Style in your backpack and carrying around a slide rule is that slide rules gave accurate answers. (I actually don't know much about Zinsser's book; I'm trying to obtain a copy, but it is apparently not published in the UK. What I do know is that he makes the outrageous claim that most adjectives are unnecessary. So I have my doubts about Zinsser too.)

Harvard econ students, rise up: ignore everything Greg Mankiw says about grammar and throw your copy of The Elements of Style away. I don't mean you should write wordy waffle or violate his style requirements; but I am saying that this nonsense about avoid the passive construction and staying away from adverbs is junk. Check out Greg's own writing if you don't believe me.

I couldn't summon enough interest or time to do more research than download the first paper on his Harvard website (a presidential address called "Spreading the Wealth Around: Reflections Inspired by Joe the Plumber"), and check for passives and adverbs. The first passive clause is in the second half of his title; the second is in the third sentence of the abstract ("how the tax system should be designed); the third paragraph of the main text has the next passive clause ("tax cuts signed into law by President Bush"); I won't go on. His third paragraph has the first adverb ("I fully expect the issue to remain at the center of political debate"), and the fourth paragraph brings a bunch more ("perhaps more important"; "slowly and steadily continue to rise"; "suddenly read Milton Friedman's book")… It is pointless to spend more time on this. Greg Mankiw can't tell how many passives or adverbs he is using. He uses them whenever he thinks they feel right. So should you.

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44 Comments »

  1. peter said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 5:06 pm

    "He says "Positive statements are more persuasive than normative statements" without defining either positivity or normativity, and I admit I am not sure what he means; possibly he means you should try to say what is the case rather than what ought to be or can be the case, in which case he is advising against modal auxiliaries. "

    This distinction is standard in mainstream economics, being taught to first-year students, and would be familiar to Mankiw's readers. Positive statements (allegedly) describe the world as it is, while normative ones describe it it should be. For example, a statement that human decision-making is often subject to biases would be considered positive, while a statement that, to be effective, human decision-making should not be so subject, would be considered normative.

    [OK, that's basically as I assumed. He is recommending against the used of normative statements involving modal auxiliary verbs like should. Well, it's absurd to try and influence students' approach to content by stipulating that they should prefer sentences of a certain form. And in case you want to know whether Greg respects his own edicts, he does not: the first occurrence of the modal should in his paper "Spreading the Wealth Around" is on page 4. —GKP]

    Statistician Cosma Shalizi has a nice parody of a normative account of economic decision-theory, here:

    http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/weblog/569.html

  2. Rubrick said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

    Clearly most adjectives are unnecessary. Otherwise, how could sea anemones get along so well without them?

  3. Peter Taylor said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

    "The passive voice is avoided by good writers' — I am assuming this is economist humor

    I am reminded of How to write good English.

  4. TB said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 6:20 pm

    Has anyone ever made a Grammar Peevologist Bingo Card?

  5. Alexei Bedogobob said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 6:24 pm

    What should I read instead of The Elements of Style?

  6. Morgan said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 7:07 pm

    "…repeats himself some more in a recommendation against certain modal adjuncts (he cites of course, clearly, and obviously). "

    This is clearly intended to be a warning against asserting a conclusion and moving on as though it can now be taken as a given. Therefore, obviously, your objection has no merit.

  7. Spell Me Jeff said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 7:20 pm

    Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph M. Williams
    Rhetorical Grammar, Martha J. Kolln

  8. Karen said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

    Joseph M. Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, or the college textbook version, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, are often (and rightly) recommended here.

  9. Alexei Bedogobob said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 7:46 pm

    Thank you.

  10. Nathan Myers said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 8:18 pm

    Perhaps the most destructive bit of nervous cluelessness I have had quoted back to me from S&W — and this one more than any other — is the notion that violations allowed to good writers are forbidden to me. Shakespeare and Lincoln may make free to split infinitives and place sentence-final prepositions because they're experts. Poor little me, on the other hand, must wear the short pants until I am great enough to assume their mantle. In the meantime I must seek to emulate lesser writers. But not just any lesser writers, but only those lesser writers so timid as to obey every rule quoted at them by every ignorant rulemaker they encounter.

  11. Anya said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 8:24 pm

    I was very tempted to buy an academic-writing guide I picked up on an LSA book-display table, but then I read in the intro that the author rereads Strunk & White every year and recommends that you do the same. I put the book down and strode briskly away.

  12. Ian Preston said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 8:43 pm

    The Google search term {Strunk White "Elements of Style" site:ed.ac.uk} reveals that it is being recommended even at fine British universities with which you may be familiar.

  13. Neal Goldfarb said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 9:51 pm

    "Use adverbs sparingly."

    That's right up there with advice like "The passive voice should be avoided" and "The excessive use of adjectives makes your writing seem weak and flabby."

    [Yes, perhaps "sparingly" was also a little piece of humor. But what the hell is the support for the anti-adverb advice supposed to be, when everyone agrees that Use adverbs sparingly is grammatical and meaningful and clear and non-wordy and perfectly good style? I really would like to have a better understanding of what is in the minds of these self-undercutting usage pundits. —GKP]

  14. hsfear said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 10:15 pm

    As the a father of a 2010 freshman, I wonder if there are any references that you would recommend for college students?

    [As several commenters have already said above, Joseph Williams' book is vastly better. Take their advice. (And ignore Buck, immediately below, who does not seem to be answering your question at all.) —GKP]

  15. Buck Ritter said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 10:43 pm

    As the a father of a 2010 freshman, I wonder if there are any references that you would recommend for college students?

    Surely no "reference" is valid on a subject such as grammar, which can only unfold. To create a reference for grammar is to limn it, to limit it, and to institutionalize your peeves all over your unsuspecting neighbor's face.

    Libertarianism is the only morally valid viewpoint: A is A, and all grammar follows from that. Claiming that one form of usage is superior to another is just another form of collectivist fascism, if a particularly womanish one.

    Language Log's an entertaining read, but sometimes it proves that all extremes are essentially identical, with the manic empiricism of Lieberman and friends looping right back around into Derridean nonsense.

    [I'm not sure what to do when I see comments as misguided as this. Erasure would be censorship, silence might imply assent, arguing back might seem like troll-feeding. Let me just point out that no one called Lieberman writes on this site, and no one on this site has any enthusiasm for Derrida, or for the view that grammar is morality, or for a "libertarianism" that says everything is correct and all usage advice is fascism (I commented on the ridiculous everything-is-correct view here), or for the view that the gradual process of language evolution implies there can be no such thing as a reference source on grammar. —GKP]

  16. Vanya said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 11:22 pm

    Enough!!!

    Geoff, I if may, you're wasting your time. And, worse, you're becoming the thing you oppose, nit-picking the nit-pickers, always the same complaints about the same unfounded prescriptions. This is the same sort of naming and shaming indulged in by the grammar gripers, just up a meta level.

    David Foster Wallace, a self-described "snoot" (i.e. a snotty prescriptivist), said that the worst sort of snoot is one that's wrong, because it discredits the others. But it turns out that the worst sort, or the most tragic, is the snoot that is right, and can't help but insisting on it again and again to people who already agree.

    I don't doubt that your motivations are generous, even liberatory. Your paper against Strunk and White is a handy reference, worth counter-prescribing. But this all seems to have also become cynical, self-satisfied, and stale. As a regular reader, commenting self-interestedly, I would love if you found new fodder for your wit. Fresher gripes are more satisfyingly sour.

    [Vanya, your Language Log subscription fee for this year is being refunded to you, and you are at liberty not to read any further posts by me or anyone else on this site. But if you imagine I am going to give up, you are wrong. There are over ten million people out there who have read Strunk & White, and more who have received their nonsense second-hand. If I tell people a thousand times on Language Log that it just isn't true that good writers avoid the passive construction, and never was true at any time in the history of English, it still will not be enough. You, however, do not have to read me saying it on each one of the thousand occasions. —GKP]

  17. giedd said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 12:23 am

    I am quite convinced that The Elements of Style harms students more than it helps them. Yet the Google search term {Strunk White "Elements of Style" site:harvard.edu} calls up nearly ninety hits. Replacing harvard.edu by mit.edu yields more, about 140.

    At risk of being nitpicky, I wonder if google hits can really be reasonable estimates of how often a book is recommended. After all, some of those may very well be criticisms. Seeing that the numbers are much higher for universities in the Boston area, I wonder if some of the hits are promotions for your own lectures?

    [Look for yourself, don't just speculate. One or two hits might be mentions of me, I suppose, but I've only lectured on this stuff at MIT once, just last week, and I've never taught courses in Cambridge. Nearly all the hits seem to be from reading lists, instructors style guides, writing tutor handouts, and so on. —GKP]

  18. BW said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 2:35 am

    A couple of days ago I was shocked to see the following on wikipedia:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_writing
    Being a non-native speaker, I didn't start 'correcting' things. But maybe one of the assembled experts could feel sufficiently enraged by some of the advice to change the entry?

  19. Cine Cynic said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 4:17 am

    I didn't read Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style", and after reading so many of your posts, GKP, I don't feel very inclined to. I find it useful to have "some" grammar book as a reference, and "Barron's Essentials of English" has so far served the purpose.

    William Zinsser's "On Writing Well" is the first book I ever read on writing. Aimed at the regular non-fiction writer, it's a well-structured and well-written book that I immensely enjoyed (enjoy) reading. The "before" and "after" examples (his editing suggestions) are lucid. The underlying message that writers should value clarity, simplicity, brevity, humanity, truth and warmth went down very well with me. I read only that one book of his, and he didn't come across as a grammar Nazi. I am very much looking forward to you reading that book and passing your judgment on it.

  20. Cine Cynic said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 4:27 am

    Language Log is a blog that liberated me from being chained to grammar excessively, to embracing language more in the way people (including tiresome teenagers online) use it.

    That said, GKP, I agree with Vanya that you may be overdoing it in your "crusade" against "The Elements of Style". While that book is a stark symbol of all such books that you frown upon, your broader message is sometimes getting lost while picking on that one symbol.

    [All right, Cine Cynic, here is the broader message. I hate Strunk and White's little book, but I also hate all other usage pontificators and grammar nazis who peddle the same kind of linguistic bullying. All of them. Do you understand me? If you have a writing instructor who is circling every is or are and telling you not to use passives, or a boss who will not let you put your adverbs in positions he does not approve, then I hate them too. You can have your Language Log subscription fee back, by the way. Just form a line on the left with the others. —GKP]

  21. Dierk said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 5:09 am

    Could it be those recommending S/W never ever opened the book?

  22. Mark P said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 5:36 am

    I think a little weight should be given to his audience, which is not the general public.

    I was on a writing course with two young men newly appointed to our treasury. Very smart. We were asked to bring in a report we had written. Then asked to find the longest sentence. Mine was 15 words. One of theirs was well over 200.

    I ascribed it to our training. Mine was in sciences. I still struggle to put anything superfluous into a sentence. Strunk and White might like it, but all my writing reads like a technical report. These young men had come from a tradition where, apparently, flowerly phrases are considered meritorious.

    So when an economics professor says "cut adverbs" he may be meaning something rather more specific than the odd "fully". He may have to read essay after essay stuffed full of them. He may be quite peeved. I know I would be, if I had to read reports written by that young Treasury man.

    [Nothing that I've said should be construed as favoring pointlessly long sentences (it grieves me that I so often write them; I try not to), or wordy complicated blathering of any sort. Keeping it short, simple, and sweet is fine with me. But don't try to tell me that every passive is some kind of sin. —GKP]

  23. Lance said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 6:19 am

    Speaking as a professional semanticist: If anyone can get any actual sense or meaning out of the post from "Buck Ritter", above, let me know.

  24. George said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 6:34 am

    @ Lance: I assumed it was a parody of some sort.

  25. chris said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 11:30 am

    avoid jargon

    Isn't this a terrible idea? Jargon exists for a reason: to express concisely and precisely a concept that might require several sentences of ordinary language to deal with all the details, contingencies and edge cases.

    Surely an economist would find it difficult to write at all without using jargon like "demand", "interest rate," or "inflation" — and if you could do it, it would only be by either inventing your own parallel jargon (and you have to be *really* talented to make that look cool; _Uncleftish Beholding_ is a famous example but I don't think there is a second example), or being much wordier than necessary.

  26. Richard Hershberger said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 11:47 am

    I read the Zinsser book a few years ago. It is far from the worst example of the genre, but it has peculiarities. It claims to be about how to write nonfiction generally, but is really about how to write student essays and the sort of articles which used to be published in general interest magazines. This produces odd results, such as the advice that a good work of nonfiction should include only one important idea, and elsewhere the cite of the Bible as a good work of nonfiction. I have wondered ever since which is the one important idea. There is a chapter of routine grammatical peeves which is best ignored. The book is also very dated in that Zinsser cites various figures from the mid-20th century to commend or condemn their writing. The edition I read claimed to be updated for the new century, but I was repeated referred to writers from before I was born. This would be fine if this was the sort of works which I as an educated person should know, but the actual works cited tended toward topical issues of the day magazine writing.

    The book might still be useful for student essay writing, but it has the problem that there is much that should be ignored. The reader who can discern which bits to ignore probably doesn't need the good bits. I would only hand this to a student in heavily redacted form.

  27. Nick said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 11:47 am

    Professor Pullum,

    Once, before I was a linguist, I was a film student. The dean of my college wrote this quaint little style guide called Please Don't Do That:

    http://www.amazon.com/Please-Dont-Do-That-Writing/dp/0922993874

    It is my least favorite 36 pages of anything. Some of it is actual grammar, most of it is his opinion (as all these books seem to be). Not only was it required for all communication students, but there was a strict rubric marking you down for every mistake you commit that was in the book. (As you can imagine, most of them are not mistakes.) This book was until recently force fed to each class of 400 students every year.

    I wish I still had my copy of it, but I believe I threw it away years ago. Have you ever heard of this? I imagine not, but I'd say it's worth the $3.95 if you want something else to tear apart.

  28. Richard Hershberger said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 11:49 am

    "So when an economics professor says "cut adverbs" he may be meaning something rather more specific than the odd "fully". He may have to read essay after essay stuffed full of them. He may be quite peeved. I know I would be, if I had to read reports written by that young Treasury man."

    The problem is not the general advice to avoid unnecessary wordiness. The problem is the hamfisted implementation.

  29. ShadowFox said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

    Use adverbs sparingly

    This must have been the corrected version. Initially, Mankiw likely wrote,

    Use adverbs carefully, correctly and sparingly

    Among the first four prescriptions

    # stay focused and cut anything irrelevant,
    # keep sentences short and use short words,
    # avoid unnecessary words,
    # keep it simple,

    there once was a fifth and a sixth:

    # Eschew belaboring the obvious
    # Avoid repetition

    But he thought better of it and cut them for clarity.

    Seriously, thought, Mankiw's style and grammar advice is reflective of his economics–pedantically prescriptive to the exclusion of evidence to the contrary. Why do you expect anything different from a conservative Cantabrigian?

  30. Cine Cynic said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 3:43 pm

    "All right, Cine Cynic, here is the broader message. I hate Strunk and White's little book, but I also hate all other usage pontificators and grammar nazis who peddle the same kind of linguistic bullying. All of them. Do you understand me? If you have a writing instructor who is circling every is or are and telling you not to use passives, or a boss who will not let you put your adverbs in positions he does not approve, then I hate them too. You can have your Language Log subscription fee back, by the way. Just form a line on the left with the others. —GKP"

    Thank you, GKP. I do understand your message. And now that it has been explicitly stated, I only wish that your message focuses more on enlightening the world about the acceptableness of apparently incorrect usages (as wrongly spread by the grammar nazis and bullies) more than on hating your enemies. (Of course, your message is yours and you don't need to change it in any manner.)

    I have been defaulting on my Language Log subscription fee, and I don't want any of it back. I do understand this message as well.

  31. George said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

    @Richard Hershberger

    ". . . and elsewhere the cite of the Bible as a good work of nonfiction"

    Hmm. That is an interesting observation. Could this be more a statement of theology than writing genre? Psalms, Song of Solomon?

  32. Simon Cauchi said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

    Not to mention Ruth, Job, Esther . . .

  33. Douglas2 said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 4:56 pm

    In my first post-college job I got a negative mark on my performance review regarding my personal appearance. When I questioned this, there was no specific thing "wrong" they could identify explicitly, but they insisted I needed improvement in my wardrobe.
    Perhaps I have the personality of an engineer, but this struck me as a problem to be solved, so I took myself to the library and bookshops to peruse books on clothing and style for men. Choosing only the ones where the example photographs contained normal-looking people (rather than fops and dandies) I put together a list of rules therefrom.
    I discovered that shopping for clothing, something that heretofore I dreaded, now became a pleasure. It was a pleasure because it was so fast — go to my size on the rack, and immediately excise from my choices anything that violated a rule on color or style for my body type. That generally left one, two, or zero choices, and it was fairly quick to decide if I liked any of them enough to justify the price. On to the next shop! I soon ended up with a wardrobe entirely of clothing that I liked, got lots of compliments, and a glowing evaluation the next year.
    I would guess that anyone seeking out Dr. Mankew's writing advice is in a similar situation. The rules maybe pointless and arbitrary, but are not actually harmful and in following them you avoid pissing off prescriptivists.
    Now I am in a position where I have needed to comment on the appearance of people in my employ. I do try to give specific rules, rather than just "try harder". The comment above:
    "violations allowed to good writers are forbidden to me"
    reminds me of the rather round fellow who complained that the rules which I gave to him for our gigs at gallery openings were not enforced by me against another fellow who looks like the man on the cover of a romance novel. I could not convince him that Lothario actually looked appropriate whatever he wore, but the rest of us had a real need to try harder.

  34. Julia Fernandez said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 5:33 pm

    The most effective way to teach people to write about any academic subject is simply to expose them to many, many well-written, persuasive articles on the subject. This allows students to understand the tone and style expected of professionals in their specific field without focusing on silly rules. The awful thing is that professors are discouraged, if not specifically forbidden, from doing so. A linguistics professor here at Portland State is doing a project on the writing instruction (or, rather, the lack thereof) given to engineering students. When she suggested this approach to a professor in that department he was shocked, believing that it would lead to plagiarism. How someone can plagiarize a proposal for a completely unique construction project and why such a thing even matters in technical writing is anyone’s guess, but it might explain why teachers defer to books like S&W.

  35. Vanya said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

    I've come back to apologize for my unsolicited "intervention", so snootily put. You're right, what's up to me is when I stop reading, not when your war is won (or if it's unwinnable).

    Let me just say, since you seem to take a fine pleasure in playful provocation (and I say this in earnest appreciation), that your post elicited my first ever eruption of anonymous e-anger. And your response chastened me, so hopefully I'm over it.

  36. JC Dill said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

    You can read some of Zinsser's "On Writing Well" online at Amazon:

    http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-25th-Anniversary-Nonfiction/dp/0060006641

  37. John Boyd said,

    May 5, 2010 @ 8:21 pm

    I too loathe Strunk and White's Elements of Style and similar writings by usage fascists, so I thoroughly enjoy GP's OCCASIONAL criticisms on the subject, which, in fact, are what first brought me and keep me coming back to Language Log. As long as "Elements" continues to be recommended and believed, long may GP continue to point out the harm it does.

  38. Franz Bebop said,

    May 7, 2010 @ 5:04 pm

    I mostly disagree with Vanya's first post, but in one respect I actually do agree.

    I'm happy reading Geoff Pullum's rants. I do not want him to find new fodder, I want him to keep fighting the good fight.

    Nevertheless, he is wasting his time writing for us groupies. He should aim for a bigger prize.

    Prof Pullum, please write a new book. The best way to rid the world of Strunk and White is for you to replace it on the bookshelf with a book of your own. You have the erudition, the wit, and the fire in the belly to pull it off. Just do it.

    It should be clear to all observers that, for some reason, English-speakers want to have a rule book, or a guide book, to tell them how to write. So give them a "rule" book. Give them a better book than the ones they have now. Give them one that makes sense. Give them a book that you are happy with.

    I'm not urging you to become a proscriptivist, instead I'm urging you to write a concise, user-friendly description, in book form, of why "traditional" rules are nonsense, and replace them with your own recommendations on good English. A book which is not proscriptivist, but which nevertheless speaks with authority, backed by real research and learning.

    Lay down the "law" (as it were). Orwell did it, White did it. You can do it. Go for it.

  39. Yosemite Semite said,

    May 8, 2010 @ 2:48 am

    Jeez, Franz — "proscriptivist"? http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003741.html Get a clue — it's Language Log.

  40. Franz Bebop said,

    May 8, 2010 @ 10:40 am

    @Yosemite: Heh, I let my enthusiasm get the best of me.

  41. Martin said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

    A particular kind of florid verbosity was common in American journalism a hundred years ago, and I'm sure Strunk's rules were in large part a reaction to that style. If "Elements" has lost its relevance, that's because many of the excesses it sought to correct are no longer in vogue. Both Zinsser and Strunk/White argue for concision, and this general advice is still relevant even if some of their specific rules aren't. And while we needn't stamp out every occurrence of "be" words, surely today's writers would benefit "help" vs. "be helpful," or "we will provide" vs. "we will be providing," etc.

    Williams' book is rigorous and persuasive, but even he self-contradicts at times. One can produce good writing, or one can explain good writing, but doing both at once seems next to impossible.

  42. Gordon P. Hemsley said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 1:13 am

    @Franz Bebop

    He has written a book. It's big and expensive, and focuses on more than just style, but if you really wanted to read something about how the English language actually is, I'd think this would be it:
    http://www.amazon.com/Cambridge-Grammar-English-Language/dp/0521431468/

    :)

  43. Randy Hudson said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 7:41 am

    My guess is that the adverb peeve is a generalization over two more specific peeves about

    * [V Adv] constructs where the adverb carries most of the semantic weight, for example "said excitedly" vs. "exclaimed". ([said Adv] led a joke form some years back: "I still insist it's a canine", the zoologist said doggedly.)

    * [Adv Adj] constructs where the adverb is an intensifier, "very" being the most usual suspect.

  44. Geri Henze said,

    September 10, 2013 @ 4:20 am

    I just discovered Language Log. When I saw the title, "Worthless Grammar Edicts from Harvard," I had to read it because I taught a required course at Harvard Business School called "Written and Oral Communication" about four decades ago. The course exists no longer, but teaching it launched me into a lifelong pursuit of truth in grammar and style.

    Some observations I hope you'll have time to comment on (or, "on which to comment"):
    –Many teachers and people who write about writing don't distinguish between grammar and style. To me, the difference is that grammar concerns the rules of using a language, while style concerns choices among correct forms of expression. Both passive and active sentences are grammatically correct. Whether to prefer active to passive is a matter of style. However, "I is going" breaks a rule of English grammar: subjects and predicates should agree in number.
    –Strunk and White's Elements of Style focuses, as the title suggests, on matters of style, not on grammar. However, the book's prescriptive tone makes stylistic choices seem like grammatical necessities. Also, the brevity that makes Elements of Style attractive to students and teachers prevents Strunk and White from addressing the complexity of the stylistic preferences they recommend.
    –At one time, teachers of most subjects had enough background in language and rhetoric (from those undergraduate years spent at colleges proudly offering liberal arts education) to comment on and correct student papers both in terms of language and the subjects they taught. Now, many teachers and professors have neither the command of English nor the professional incentive to address language issues as they read student writing.
    –The Elements of Style remains popular because it is short, easy to read, and easier for professors to recommend than for professors to acquire the language skills and take the time to make valid comments about writing style and grammar on students' written work.

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