McCrum’s 100 best ways to ruin the 4th of July

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The many Americans in the University of Edinburgh’s community of language and information scientists had to celebrate the glorious 4th on the 3rd this year, because the 4th is an ordinary working Monday. I attended a Sunday-afternoon gathering kindly hosted by the Head of the School of Informatics, Johanna Moore. We barbecued steadfastly in the drizzle despite classic Scottish indecisive summer weather: it was cloudy, well under 60°F. Twice we all had to flee inside indoors when the rain became heavier. No matter: we chatted together and enjoyed ourselves. (I swore in 2007 that one thing I was not going to do was spend my time in this bracing intellectual environment grumbling about how the weather in Santa Cruz had been better. I’m here for the linguistic science, not the weather.) So it was a happy Fourth of July for me. Until this morning, the actual 4th, when people started emailing me (thanks, you sadistic bastards) to note that Robert McCrum had chosen America’s independence day to make his choice for the 23rd in a series called “The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time,” in the British newspaper The Observer. He chooses The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White. For crying out loud!

McCrum pothers on about how Elements is “the indispensable road map through a trackless desert of whirling words,” how it aims to “save the language from corruption, marching to war against the horrors of jargon, prolixity and grammatical solecism,” how it is “replete with many timeless truths about modern English usage…” All sorts of similar flowery nonsense.

I’ll tell you what Elements is replete with: bullshit. Almost every single generalization it makes about the form of sentences is false, and not just because of ignorance or mendacity: the authors simply didn’t care whether their drivel was false or not. That is the true hallmark of bullshit as opposed to honest lying.

Strunk’s original 1918 edition of his odious little booklet has been made available online by bartleby.com. People are often quite vague about whether they are making reference to this original or any of White’s later revisions (1959, 1972, 1979, 2000). They differ quite a bit. Strunk was pretty clueless about grammar, but White certainly didn’t make things any better. He fiddled with Strunk’s text and added extra bits, including some of the stupidest.

It was White, in 1979, who added a section (4th ed., pp.9–11) telling us that subject noun phrases with the determiner none should always take singular agreement. He has the nerve to cite None of us are perfect as an example of an error in this regard. He was surely aware of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, in which the impeccably spoken Dr. Chasuble speaks that line. I think White just had a logical bee in his bonnet and wanted to express his personal preference whether it was valid or not.

Purists often assert the non sequitur that none means “not one” and thus should take singular as one does. They imagine that grammar is parasitic on logic. Not so. You have to find out what’s grammatical in a human language through empirical investigation. You have three minutes left; You have two minutes left; You have one minute left… And what comes 60 seconds after that? You have zero minutes left. If it had been grammatical to say *You have zero minute left I would have told you, but it turns out that zero takes plural agreement. So does none of us. Optionally, in the latter case: you can say None of us is perfect if you wish. In the Wall Street Journal corpus there are 7 occurrences of plural agreement with none of us/you/them (as in none of them are currently Fed employees) and 6 of singular agreement (as in none of them is a likely takeover target, where the context does fit better with the singular), so it’s fairly even. In Strunk’s day White’s generalization may have been even more wrong than it is now: in Dracula (published when Strunk was 28) there are three cases of plural agreement and none of singular agreement.

The bottom line is that telling students None of us are perfect is a mistake doesn’t even have the dignity of deception. It’s worse than a lie; it’s total bullshit.

White’s major addition in 1959 was Chapter 5, “An Approach to Style.” It is old-fashioned, quirky, meandering, empty drivel. “Be clear,” he says. You need a book to tell you that? No, you need a book that gives you good advice on how to be clear in your writing. And what White does is typified by his endorsement of the old myth that there is something wrong with putting a preposition at the end of a clause. It is “bad grammar” (4th ed., p.77), only acceptable if your “ear is reliable”, in which case you can “use bad grammar deliberately”. Sometimes it is preferable to write the tool he murdered her with, he says (misogynistic example courtesy of White, not me). “Why? Because it sounds more violent, more like murder. A question of ear.” A question of pure, unadulterated, steaming bullshit. White hasn’t given a minute’s thought to his ridiculous generalization.

See if this sounds violent, like murder, to you: “You seem pensive, sweetheart; tell me what you’re thinking about.” Case closed. How long did that take?

White could write beautiful prose in his own novels and essays; but he can’t tell you how it’s done. Listening to him on the technical aspects of how to write grammatically and stylishly is like listening to a soccer player or manager after a game (“If we played like this every week, we wouldn’t be so inconsistent,” said the manager of Manchester United on one occasion).

The Elements of Style is one of the 100 worst nonfiction books ever sold to the public. It is tragic that America’s perverted and abusive love affair with it has caused it to be pressed into the hands of so many millions of undergraduates. I wish things were otherwise.

And I wish Robert McCrum had done more research. He did somehow manage to light upon the judgment that Elements is an “ageing zombie of a book … a hodgepodge, its now-antiquated pet peeves jostling for space with 1970s taboos and 1990s computer advice.” He attributes that to the Boston Globe, where it did indeed appear. The description was written in 2005 by Jan Freeman, the finest language columnist any periodical in America ever had, in a column reviewing (of all things) an illustrated reissue of Elements. Her piece was headed “Frankenstrunk” (it’s behind a paywall here, but the text is reproduced for educational purposes here and here). Jan was right. Listen to her. Or to me (here, for example). Listen to people who have studied the book and compared what it says with what is known about the English language. Not to McCrum, who just infuriatingly re-pothers the standard pothering.



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