The Land of the Free in the grip of The Elements of Style

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In the April 17th issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Geoff Pullum meditates on Strunk & White ("50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice"):

April 16 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a little book that is loved and admired throughout American academe. Celebrations, readings, and toasts are being held, and a commemorative edition has been released.

I won't be celebrating.

That was the beginning, and here's the end:

It's sad. Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write "however" or "than me" or "was" or "which," but can't tell you why. The land of the free in the grip of The Elements of Style.

So I won't be spending the month of April toasting 50 years of the overopinionated and underinformed little book that put so many people in this unhappy state of grammatical angst. I've spent too much of my scholarly life studying English grammar in a serious way. English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don't-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can't even tell when they've broken their own misbegotten rules.

The material in between is available on paper in the Chronicle Review soon to appear in the mailboxes of subscribers, and for free on line here.


  1. Nik said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

    Mr.Pullum is indeed correct that 3/4 of the "Use Active Voice" examples are not passive construction. But I don't think that S+W mean to say that 'look what the following passive voice do to your writing'. I think they mean rather 'look how active voice shines more brightly!' and that another hihgly active culprit that jumps out of the alley, besides passive voice, is the use of 'there is/are', 'is/are that'. And I think S+W meant to steer just a bit away from passive voice to describe what other things are that can weakened the seriousness the author intends. And it would have been wrong if they do so but still call that chapter "Avoid Passive Voice" which was what I thought until this minute ( I have read the book many times, and I almost always remembered it that way ), but it is actually " Use Active Voice"

    I never took any grammar class. But I can usually point out subjects, verbs, and things. I heard that a complete sentence is at least a subject + verb. Like, " I ate", "he jumps". (I don't know how to justify "Yes!"). And every sentence then may be reduced to, often ridiculously of course, to a few words. So 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.' => I do not (give?)" Anyway, if you look at the first non-passive example:
    1: The sound of the falls could still be heard. => Sounds could be ( I heard that could is something called an auxiliary)
    2: The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired. => Reason was.
    3.It was not long before he was very sorry that he had said what he had.=>It was + he was.

    I mean, lots of what we say/write daily are like that. It must be quite boring. And why not use a word (in S+W's suggestion, a verb) that fit very well literally or metaphorically? So their suggested corrections become:
    => Sound reached
    => Health compelled
    => He repented
    Not the garden variety "it was that", "there were", & Co..

    [I think this is the most confusing comment I have ever seen on Language Log. I simply cannot figure out what it is saying about passives, existentials, uses of the verb be, ellipsis, etc. But I blame Strunk and White. When people learn their grammar from The Elements of Style, confusion is what we should expect. —GKP]

  2. Karen said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 8:02 pm

    I no longer have a copy of S&W around, but how do they justify adding new information? Sound could be heard -> sound reached? Sound reached who, where?

    And moving health into the subject position destroys the information structure: in the original sentence, that he left college was the old/given/theme of the sentence and his health is the new/rheme. In the rewrite, those roles are reversed.

    Trust me – or don't, just try it out – constantly putting the new information at the beginning of the sentence is much worse for your reader than "not using active voice".

  3. Karen said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 8:03 pm

    Anyway, the "be" in "sounds could be heard" is an auxiliary verb, too.

  4. acilius said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 8:42 pm

    The article includes an admirable passage specifying a situation in which the passive voice usually sounds stilted. I'd like to thank Professor Pullum for that.

  5. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 9:29 pm

    Pullum's article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed got mentioned at, which I think is quite a score for something related to language / grammar / style.

  6. Chris Kern said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 10:47 pm

    Although I notice that most of the comments are supportive of S&W and seem to either have not read or not understood Professor Pullum's criticisms.

    Of course most of the comments seem to be taking the (sadly common) viewpoint that S&W's advice and rules are objectively correct, and that what Professor Pullum is attempting to is change the rules, rather than point out that the rules were never true in the first place.

    Add to that the usual hand-waving — discounting literary evidence because "language isn't the same as it was then", claiming that Professor Pullum's goal is to sell his own books, etc.

    [Yes, Chris, I had already been expecting that people would say I was trying to sell books. I have actually prepared a message to send out to the people who write to me for recommendations. I tell them to try Joseph Williams's Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. The idea of using anything I have written is ridiculous: I'm an academic linguist by day and a blogger by night, and nothing I have published is suitable for handing to a freshman who needs to know how to write. —GKP]

  7. John Cowan said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 4:14 am

    Those who share Pullum's view of Strunk & White might like to go look at Strunk & Cowan, The Elements of Style Revised. I took Strunk's original 1918 (public domain) "little book" and corrected it by comparison with MWCDEU, trying to get rid of "the obsolete, the erroneous, and the merely idiosyncratic" while preserving the Strunkian style and original purpose.

    Comments solicited.

  8. Spectre-7 said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 4:19 am

    Well… the bulk of comments at Fark were depressing to say the least. I wish I hadn't stumbled across that.

    On the upside, I learned some very intriguing facts. English is apparently a Romance language, a descendant of Latin. How utterly fascinating. I also learned from an English major that the following is a sentence fragment: "However, he had no money, and no way of transporting the fruit."

    By Fark consensus, we can also conclude that the honorable Professor Pullum is a douche, douchebag, douchenozzle or other douche-related item, some nobody English professor, unqualified to comment on American English because he's Scottish, and a grammar nazi.

    That last one is the most mystifying to me. His article attempted to liberate a few English constructions unfairly proscribed by Strunk & White, and somehow he's the nazi in this situation. Never mind any evidence he may have presented in support of his arguments.

    I doubt even 1/10th of the commenters over there actually bothered to read the article.

    It's like Bizarro World over there. Here's a fairly typical comment, in case anyone's considering checking it out. "Wait. You mean the man is trying to boost sales of his own no-doubt-intellectually-anemic book by riding the coattails of the inimitable Messrs Strunk and White? You don't say."

    The internet makes me terribly sad some days.

  9. sharon said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 5:14 am

    I think they mean rather 'look how active voice shines more brightly!'

    That choice of metaphor rather invites the observation that light without shade doesn't take long to get very tiring.

    'Use active voice' may be good advice for small children and new learners of a language, but for anyone else is a scandalous waste of valuable linguistic resources. The passive voice is easily abused, it's true, but that's all the more reason for any genuine advice to explain when and how to use it effectively. 'Use active voice' is a cop out and a cheat. It's a betrayal of language and of writers. It's the 'advice' of frauds.

  10. Dick Margulis said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 6:33 am

    The perspective from Language Log Plaza reminds me of the famous New Yorker cover by Saul Steinberg showing the view of geography of the United States from the perspective of a Manhattanite.

    Yes, if you are surrounded, as you seem to be, by people who, for whatever reason and from whatever background, write well–or even adequately–then the paint-by-numbers approach of S&W looks quite ridiculous. But if you are neck-deep in the swamp of prose written by ordinary, supposedly educated, Americans, you are likely to see any cheat sheet that helps drain the muck as a life preserver.

    Strunk & White is a style guide for people with no discernible style or, worse, with the anti-style that results from 12 years of Miss Thistlebottom-imposed RULES about what makes a sentence grammatical. It is not a grammar. While you might think it a good idea for every third grader in the United States to memorize the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, the fact is that most people don't care to devote that much attention to their writing style. They have other things on their minds (cars, sex, food, money, not necessarily in that order) and do not have the reasoning power to associate learning to write well with reaching their objectives. For that vast audience, a brief, easily digested tip sheet like S&W is a good choice, no matter how imperfect its content from the expert practitioner's point of view.

    Out here in the real world, where people who cannot write do so anyway, either because their jobs require them to or because they are delusional would-be novelists, I want more people to have read S&W, not fewer.

  11. Wordoch said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 7:36 am

    What Prof. Pullum's article laments is not S&W's style advice (though he does show some of it be completely outlandish if not necessarily incorrect) but the mass honorification of the book as the authority on how to write well and 'grammatically', whatever that may mean to people "out here in the real world".
    The best you can say about their 'advice' is that it is idiosyncratic, i.e. not based on any systematic analysis of English grammar and literary precendence, and is thus at times (more often than not) highly misleading; as Pullum shows, the authors do not play by their own rules, sometimes even within the same paragraph. This is a problem

  12. James said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 7:40 am

    you are likely to see any cheat sheet that helps drain the muck as a life preserver.

    Dear Mr. White,

    I am out to drain muck. Should I use a life preserver, or a cheat sheet?
    Thanks for all your advice — it is so helpful here in the real world of muck-draining.

    A Would-Be Novelist

  13. Dick Margulis said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 7:54 am


    Yes, I understand all that. Prof. Pullum and others here have detected and criticized the great imperfections in the work. That's fine, and I don't disagree. But they also vilify it as making the world a worse place, whereas I say it has made the world a better place.

    Look, a great natural writer is not going to allow herself to be hobbled by some fusty old coot saying she must never use the passive voice. This is the strawman put up by advocates of Whole Language instructions: "We don't want to crush the fragile self-esteem of the next Shakespeare by imposing all these arbitrary rules." But the next Shakespeare is going to shake his spear at all those silly rules and will not be crushed by them.

    [(myl) Rather than advice about how to write, you seem to be most in need of advice about how to read. With respect to the passive voice, Pullum observed that S&W give

    … some fairly sensible style advice: The authors explicitly say they do not mean "that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice," which is "frequently convenient and sometimes necessary." They give good examples to show that the choice between active and passive may depend on the topic under discussion. […]
    What concerns me is that the bias against the passive is being retailed by a pair of authors so grammatically clueless that they don't know what is a passive construction and what isn't. Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses.

    Strunk and White may or may not have been fusty old coots, but they didn't say that writers should never use the passive voice. Their advice against over-using it, however, is doubly unhelpful: first because their explanation of how to choose between active and passive is somewhere between irrelevant and incoherent, and second because they clearly don't have a clue what the passive voice actually is. ]

    Yet for the vast majority who are not natural writers (or who might have been but in whom schooling put out the flame) and who produce stilted, eye-glazing, wretched prose, a little advice to brighten it with active voice helps more than it hurts.

    I'm guessing you haven't walked in my shoes–helping engineers write PowerPoint sales presentations in one job, for example. Trust me. That job got easier after I gave my high-volume "clients" (co-workers of mine, all) gift-wrapped copies of S&W for Christmas one year.

    [(myl) This certainly suggests that it's good for people to pay attention to their writing. But if your co-workers were helped so much by a book full of vague platitudes about clarity, incoherent grammatical analyses, and made-up rules, perhaps they would have been helped even more by a better book, like Joseph Williams' Style: Towards Clarity and Grace.]

    Yes, when I was at Cornell, my classmates in the engineering school reported that they had to learn to express themselves competently in English, as a graduation requirement. But I've worked with a lot of engineers who didn't go to Cornell and had never heard of such a requirement in their colleges.

    I guess it all comes down to which end of the telescope you're looking through.

  14. Wordoch said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 7:59 am

    …when arbitrary edicts such as S&W's become 'institutionalised' in schools and colleges and in the wider public conciousness, and any writing which violates these rules may be perceived as somehow deficient or even 'incorrect' in some way.

    In a way though, it seems to me that split infinitives, that/which, different than and the all rest are just another little linguistic tyranny which the literate impose on themselves. Only intuitively, I don't feel that people think too much about splitting an infinitive or any other prescriptive rules when they're talking naturally, but when it comes to writing, we're all wringing our hands and scratching our heads over the finer points of our style, syntax, word choices and oh so elusive 'correctness'. Because writing, as much as it can be and often is a reasonable approximation of spoken language, is a cultural innovation with only a relatively short history as compared with spoken language, one which we sometimes still struggle to master.

  15. Alvin said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 9:25 am

    Interesting that most of the reactions here, and Pullum's original article, observe most of the S&W dicta even while damning them. Maybe they were on to something after all.

  16. Ellen said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 9:49 am

    Seems to me incorrect to use any style guide, no matter how good, for learning grammar.

  17. Dustin said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 9:58 am

    @ Dick Margullis

    While you might think it a good idea for every third grader in the United States to memorize the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language,…

    You seem, as many commenters on fark, to have missed the point of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. It is a descriptive grammar, meaning it describes how people actually use English. It covers a range of dialects, most of them non-standard. No one is expecting you to use it to polish your own prose. After all, it is nearly 2000 pages long.

    You are a native speaker of English (presumably), and no one has to tell you that you can say "get drunk" and "fall dead" but not "fall drunk" and "get dead." But these facts are still interesting to someone who is interested in language for its own sake, and a chart detailing the possibilities, as on page 17 of this review , is the type of thing the CGEL is about.

  18. James said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 10:20 am


    No, they do not follow the S&W dicta.
    For example, Dick Margulis has "… you are surrounded by people who…" and Sharon has "The passive voice is easily abused". Those are both passive voice (and both better than the active alternatives would have been).

    The fact that you think the commenters are following S&W's dicta, when in fact they are not, should tell you something.

  19. Alvin said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 10:54 am

    James, I said "most" follow "most." If you're gonna nitpick, pay attention.

  20. Linguistician said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 11:51 am

    I suggest we combine the farkers with the fishdicks at South Park. That would make for interesting syntax.

  21. Dick Margulis said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 11:54 am


    Yes, CGEL is descriptive. But we mustn't be prescriptive–ever–right? This presents a dilemma. All are agreed that some strings of words are inelegant or even ungrammatical and that some people write better than others. But we mustn't tell students how to write well. We can only describe good writing, ask students to read a lot, ask them to write a lot (hoping they'll get better at it), and perhaps point them to a Language Long-sanctioned style guide. Well, that works for people who are native speakers (preferably middle class, I take it) and who are good at observation and imitation. But for the rest, I guess we should try to teach them something, and apparently our only recourse is to have them study a descriptive grammar (although not CGEL when they're in third grade, obviously). That, or prohibit them from ever writing anything. Is that it?

    I don't care whether writers can name parts of speech or diagram sentences on the chalkboard. I'm over that, 'kay? And I do appreciate the careful analysis of all that is wrong with Strunk & White, as well as the advice to recommend Williams's book next time. But I do think it a bit disingenuous, not to mention unfair, to take a book written for one sort of audience and criticize it because it is entirely unsuitable for a different sort of audience. The only fair test for a book, in this context, is whether it is helpful for the audience it was written for. Is it the best possible book for that audience? No. Are other books better? Surely. Do some people misuse it, misapply it, promote it as something it isn't (a grammar book, for example)? Yes. Is that the authors' fault after all these years? I think not. Is it the publisher's fault? Possibly from the academic perspective, but the publishers are far more interested in their stockholders' perspective, I'd guess.

  22. Greg Kochanski said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

    Prof. Pullum says: "Certainly White was a fine writer, but he was not qualified as a grammarian. Despite the post-1957 explosion of theoretical linguistics, Elements settled in as the primary vehicle through which grammar was taught to college students…"

    1) Strunk and White was a style guide, not a grammar guide (it even says so in the title). Why villify them if their book was used for another purpose?

    [Because it is just about all that most Americans ever see by way of grammar instruction, and it spreads confusion and falsehood. —GKP]

    2) It seems a little odd to think that discriptive linguistics has helped anyone write better. If so, how?

    [I never said descriptive linguistics helped anyone write. I said Elements became the primary vehicle for grammar instruction; theoretical linguistics was simply ignored. Studying linguistics might help people to write better; I don't know; but I know I never mentioned the issue at all. —GKP]

    I dunno. I think mud could be slung in both directions…

  23. bianca steele said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

    @Spectre-7: I'm pretty sure the conjugation of "grammar nazi" is as follows:

    I think everyone should follow the grammatical dictates I think are intuitively correct.

    You are overly concerned with amateur grammar dictators.

    She feels unduly oppressed by the grammatical dictates of others.

  24. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

    @Bianca, you got it wrong. It goes: "I am a careful writer; you are a purist; he is a pedant"

  25. Ellen said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

    Greg, surely some descriptivist grammar is needed for devising instructional grammars for foreign language learners. Also, I would think, useful in creating a good style guide. Easier to describe what folks should and shouldn't do if one has a firm grasp of what folks actually do.

  26. Sili said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

    Strunk & White is a style guide for people with no discernible style or, worse, with the anti-style that results from 12 years of Miss Thistlebottom-imposed RULES about what makes a sentence grammatical.

    But … miss Thistlebottom's rules are in likelihood exactly what she's gleened from S&W. And if one tries to disagree by pointing out the usage of what she in class considers great writes, she'll likely hold up her much-cherished, dogeared copy of S&W and declaim from it, as it was the word of some otherworldly authority.

  27. Fencing Bear said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

    Does anyone at Language Log Plaza have any thoughts on Joseph William's Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 9th edition (2006)? It is, to my mind, the best book on style ever written–and rewritten, and rewritten. Williams was much, much better than Strunk and/or White at thinking about how style works both grammatically and rhetorically. It is also an extremely useful book for those who are required to help others improve their style.

    [You're right; Williams's book is excellent. I keep saying so, and so does Mark (e.g. in a red annotation above), but nobody listens. People at both Fark and Metafilter are busy insisting that I'm trying to market a rival book myself. But all I ever do is point people to Joseph Williams, and to Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage. —GKP]

  28. Sili said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

    1) Strunk and White was a style guide, not a grammar guide (it even says so in the title). Why villify them if their book was used for another purpose?

    Because the book isn't used as a Style Guide. It's used as though it was the final dictum on grammar.

    That Fark thread was absolutely painful to look at. As if anyone ever suggested using CGEL as an alternative to that odious little pamphlet. And all those references to "passive tense" must make Hartmann-Skitt-McKean shit their pants with laughter.

  29. Fencing Bear said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

    Whoops! I should search the archives first; I see that you have. It's too bad that with Williams' books out there we are still beset with S&W.

  30. John said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 1:53 pm

    @ Mr. Margulis: You seem to be saying that, while Strunk & White has its flaws, it is (for a certain audience) better to have this book as a guide than to have no guide at all.

    Maybe… but then there is the question of whether there is any particular value to studying the edicts of S&W, rather than the following list of rules that I just made up on the spot:

    1. Avoid using the imperfective aspect as much as possible; it tends to connote wishy-washinesss.

    2. Keep in mind your intended audience as you write! Don't over-explain things, but on the other hand tell your reader enough that she can figure out what you mean to say.

    3. Be careful not to confuse "fracas" with "fricassee."

    4. Don't use too many adverbs. You should use at most two adverbs per clause, on average.


    If I gave a list of such rules to a freshman writing class and got the students to try to follow them, then I think it could well improve their writing, if only because it would cause them to pay careful attention to their prose. But clearly these rules are kind of silly if you take them seriously, which I think is Professor Pullum's main point about S&W.

  31. Sili said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

    Re the next post (yes, I realise it's ad form to reply here; I'll promptly go flog myself):

    Dear prof Pullum,

    Woot! You rock!*

    To the guy who said "my penis could type a better article": your girlfriend told me she doesn't think so.

    I'm amused by the use of the eupemistic "penis" in this context.

    *as I believe the kids say these days.

  32. Nassira Nicola said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

    Thank you, Sili, for pointing out what I came to mention: if, after fifty years of inflicting S&W on our students, their writing is worse than ever, perhaps more S&W is not in fact the remedy. It's the source of more absurd pedagogy and grammatical (and, yes, stylistic) confusion than I can even begin to contemplate.

    I'm a linguist who teaches freshman writing. I've seen what's out there (and incidentally, I find it puzzling how many commenters seem to think that Professor Pullum has never seen college-student compositions). If any of my students actually wrote like E.B. White, I would be thrilled; however, they write as though they were following his advice, and it takes a little of the spirit out of me every time.

  33. RebGrL said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

    @Silli, exactly. The writers of the "swamp of prose" in question grew up in a century dominated by teachers who worshiped at the shrine of Strunk & White. They are the ones who dedicated S&W to grammatical ends; it is this misuse and distortion of emphasis that Professor Pullum describes. Nowhere does he disdain rules of grammar as such, otherwise he would have no basis for criticizing the book's usages.

    English was my best subject in school until I took an Advanced Placement class my senior year of high school. What should have been an adventurous experience turned into a year of torture, for the teacher was one of those who lived by the letter of the S&W grammatical law in the narrow reading Professor Pullum describes. She counted every use of passive voice as incorrect, downgrading any paper that included them. The time would have been better spent teaching us how to use the passive appropriately rather than outlawing it. (Sadly, she never could understand why I performed so poorly in her class, yet made the highest possible score on the AP exam.)

    Such misguided pedantry likely contributed to poor writing by making grammar instruction as unpleasant as possible. Such a shame, too, as it is an inherently fascinating subject, which I eventually rediscovered many years after high school.

  34. Dick Margulis said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 4:22 pm


    I don't think S&W is the be-all and end-all. It's just a book. Its chief virtue is brevity: When you hand someone a slim book with the suggestion that they might find it helpful, there's a chance they'll actually look at it. And the veneer of authority afforded it by its being one they may have heard of improves the chances they'll take some of it to heart. To that extent, it's a better book (read: more beneficial) than a thicker or heavier one and probably more effective than an email with a list of suggestions. I do think that singling it out for the level of ridicule it seems to engender among LLP denizens suggests a certain level of defensiveness on their part, though.

    I am somewhat dismayed to learn in this comment thread that S&W is being used as a cudgel by public school teachers these days. I always thought of it as a gentle corrective to be given to someone who had been victimized by evil prescriptivists. I didn't know it had become the prescription. I don't think it was ever intended to be used that way. I guess I can understand how, if there's a tenured prescriptivist in the classroom and you take away her Warriner's, she's going to use something else (apparently S&W is a popular choice), but that's still a problem with the teacher; it's not the fault of the authors.

    As to your list, yes, that's how a favorite high school English teacher of mine did it–quite successfully–one page of guidelines and a Q&A session to explain them, on the first day of class, mumblety years ago. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have that good a teacher, though; and not every student is going to accept that such suggestions, sans a publishing imprint, have credibility and value.

  35. Trent said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 5:17 pm

    The comments are off on GPK's latest post, so I'll say here that filing "Fark Off' under "Animal Communication" is fricking hilarious.

  36. Alvin said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 6:44 pm

    When you say your students write as though they were following E. B. White's advice, I'm curious what you mean. How does that manifest itself? What specific White advice leads to such dispiriting results? Can you maybe give an example?

  37. EconTech » Links for 2009.04.12 said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 7:32 pm

    […] The Land of the Free in the grip of The Elements of StyleI thought I was the only person who wasn't a fan of a lot of their advice. […]

  38. Mark F. said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

    I'm not sure that Geoff is right about S&W being the "primary vehicle for grammar instruction" in the US. In my recollection, there was no instruction in grammar after the ninth grade. There was instruction in how to structure an essay, feedback on writing, and some guidance in style. There was no discussion of, say, what a subordinate clause is. My English teachers were interested in literature, not grammar.

    In the ninth grade and before, we had state-approved textbooks and our teachers. No Strunk & White. It may be that S&W is the primary vehicle for college level writing instruction, but that's still different from grammar instruction. I never had to read it myself, so I don't know.

  39. Arnold Zwicky said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 8:08 pm

    Dustin: "You seem, as many commenters on fark, to have missed the point of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. It is a descriptive grammar, meaning it describes how people actually use English. It covers a range of dialects, most of them non-standard."

    NO NO NO! CGEL proposes to describe EFGSWE (Established Formal General Standard Written English) — the elite variety that handbooks like S&W propose to prescribe. This could hardly be clearer than from the book itself. (Apparently, critics are attacking the book on the grounds of what they think the book must be saying, rather than looking at what it actually says , and does. I doubt that they've looked at it at all.) Insofar as it covers a range of dialects, these are EFGSWE American, EFGSWE British, etc. dialects, none of them non-standard. (Every so often, Geoff writes me to say that he's pleased that for the purposes of CGEL he and Rodney (etc.) don't have to look at some phenomena I've been working on, because (however fascinating they are) they're non-standard).

  40. Nassira Nicola said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 8:39 pm

    Alvin – Alas, I don't have any examples to hand, but I've bled several purple pens dry writing "awk" over sentences which were clearly attempts to avoid the passive (however a particular student happened to understand it, which usually had more to do with the copula or expletive subjects than actual passives). Likewise, I've had students air-drop references to "the starling study" into a paper without any introduction (or follow-up) because they were taught not to "explain too much." Oy.

  41. acilius said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 9:39 pm

    Why are any of you bothering with the commenters on Fark? The best rule is always, don't feed the trolls.

  42. D.O. said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 9:44 pm

    @Dick Margulis:
    You are being outnumbered here and I hate to pile on, but there is really not much sense in defending clear mistakes in an otherwise fine book (if you think S&W is fine and that Prof. Pullam and others correctly identified mistakes, I did not see S&W ever so can not tell). Suppose I write a book on physics for "poets" class with the express puropse that when they will go out and correct technical writing they won't faint at niceties like "seconds squared". So I will write "acceleration due to gravity on Earth is 11.5 meters per second squared". Why anybody would ever defend this? It should just be corrected and if I refuse to do so, thrown out. If educational racket can not perform such easy cleansing task and affix a "Seal of Impecable Style" to another book or corrected edition of the same book they had to be shamed.

  43. TB said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 10:20 pm

    I very much appreciate the article; but I admit I am little likely to show it to the Strunk & White-loving people in my life. Some people love this book, for reasons I can only guess at, in a very emotional way. My brother-in-law was recently listening to it as an audiobook (he usually reads this way while working) with an expression of great pleasure and satisfaction on his face. I couldn't bring myself to explain its faults and ruin his enjoyment.

    I'm not sure it would do any good, anyway. Googling "Strunk & White Pullum" has given me some interesting food for thought. I had no idea that Professor Pullum is trying to "supplant" traditional grammar with transformational grammar, for example; much less that he insists we all must use the passive voice in every sentence. Nor that Strunk & White's prescriptions included avoiding Internet abbreviations. Prescient of them.

  44. Alvin said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 11:24 pm

    If your students are getting their advice from S&W, you should advise them to go ahead and read it beyond simply the headings. S&W are pretty evenhanded in their advice about active/passive voice. They take roughly the same stance as the revered Joseph Williams. Prefer the active; it usually works better than the passive. Not always, but usually. It's actually decent advice. Same thing with White's advice under "Do not explain too much." If your students actually read the section below the heading, they'll see he's talking about not cluttering dialog with unnecessary adverbs after the attributive verb–it's fairly specific advice, and it's useful. Sounds like your students are making the same mistake I've seen Pullum make before–not bothering to consider S&W's full text but reacting instead to their headings.

  45. Ryan said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 11:41 pm

    TB: Good choice. My mother, a former high school English teacher, was raised on Strunk and White. Her first words to me after she started reading the article were, "Don't believe everything you read on the internet." When I informed her it was written by an established and respected professor of Linguistics, she took the tack that S&W is old, and that "language changes." When I informed her that Mark Twain was flouting their rules as he pleased, she just clung to the "language change" idea, and actually got pretty defensive about it. I then asked her whether she'd use "none are" or "none is" and her response was, "I'd have to check." A native speaker of English, 52 years old, born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, and apparently her own intuitions about English and how it treats "none" can't be trusted.

  46. Nathan said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 11:49 pm

    @Alvin: If the evidence suggests that Strunk & White couldn't correctly identify passive voice, why should anyone consider their opinions about how well it works versus active voice? It's like taking cooking advice from someone who claims onions are usually better than garlic, when what he refers to as "garlic" includes potatoes, leeks, and pork.

  47. Nathan said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 11:50 pm

    And onions.

  48. Rubrick said,

    April 13, 2009 @ 3:54 am

    I think I'd better steer well clear of this whole fricassee.

  49. Edward Vitasek said,

    April 13, 2009 @ 7:17 am

    ***[I think this is the most confusing comment I have ever seen on Language Log. I simply cannot figure out what it is saying about passives, existentials, uses of the verb be, ellipsis, etc. But I blame Strunk and White. When people learn their grammar from The Elements of Style, confusion is what we should expect. —GKP]***

    Confusing it may be, but I do think there's a point in there. I've come to a similar conclusion after reading one of Mr. Pullum's older posts, which accuses Strunk of ignorance about what the passive voice is. My instinctive reaction, then, was approximately:

    Wait, Strunk called those "perfunctory constructions" not "passive construnctions". And the "rule" is called "Use the active voice" not "Avoid the passive voice". It took me a year to figure out what exactly I was thinking. I now think the section "Use the active voice" can be broken down into two rules:

    1. When you have a choice use the active form of a verb.

    2. When the verb cannot take the active voice, replace the verb with a word that can. Apply 1.

    These, I think, are the basic rules Strunk may have had in mind; but not at a level that generalised. "Existential there", for example, involves a linking verb, which is neither active nor passive. (There is an active verb, but it's "hidden" in a participle clause that modifies the noun "leaves". [I still wonder whether that's the only interpretation.]) So basically we substitute "to cover" for "to be" (and take the meaning of the verb from the linguistic context). We now have a "transtive in the active voice" where we formerly had a linking verb (neither in the active nor in the passive voice).

    So I do think that Strunk could identify a passive verb when he saw one; but the rule "use the active voice" was – to him – broader than just "avoid the passive voice". The key problem, of course, is that he never told us what he thought the "active voice" was. We have clues in the form of the phrasing "transitive in the active voice", and the examples.

    Interestingly, the "sounds of the falls" which "reached our ears" got replaced in later edition by a "cock's crow" which "came with dawn"? Notice something? There no longer is a "transitive in the active voice", leaving an inappropriate example to illustrate a fuzzy line. "Came" may be in the active voice (I do think, though I can't be sure, that Strunk would agree with this), but it's not transitive.

    All of this renders the rule "use the active voice" even more vague than it looks on the surface. I'm left wondering whether Strunk thinks that "She exhibits beauty," is superior to "She is beautiful," (linking verbs vs. transitive verbs), or even whether "Rain hasn't doused London in weeks," is superior to "It hasn't rained in London for weeks," (transitive verbs [active or not] vs. active transitives).

    Anyway, I do think that Strunk's problem here isn't so much ignorance about the passive voice as fuzzy thinking. I can't tell whether or not Strunk would have approved of the "cock's crow" edit, for example.

  50. Alvin said,

    April 13, 2009 @ 7:33 am

    If the evidence truly suggested that S&W didn't know what they were talking about, you and Pullum might have a case. But if you read the section of EOS in question, you'll see that they in fact do have a handle on it. Pullum pulled his "damning" examples from after this S&W statement: "Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as "there is" or "could be heard." And the examples that follow match those criteria perfectly. Pullum recognizes this, or he's not the uber-grammarian you all make him out to be. Maybe he's not even the philologist Strunk was. I guess, though, if you can read the S&W examples and not recognize the improvements they're pointing out, it's probably not the book for you.

  51. Ellen said,

    April 13, 2009 @ 10:00 am

    Edward Vitasek, your comment is confusing as well. In particular, the paragraph that begins with "these". It looks like you are giving us half an example. Or, rather, referring to an example sentence without giving us the sentence.

  52. marie-lucie said,

    April 13, 2009 @ 11:49 am

    "Active" and "passive" voices can only apply to alternate forms of transitive verbs. Intransitive verbs may illustrate actions but do not have a choice of voices.

  53. Philip said,

    April 13, 2009 @ 1:30 pm


    "Many a tame sentence of exposition or description can be made lively and emphatic . . . ." is passive voice.

  54. Alvin said,

    April 13, 2009 @ 1:44 pm


    Right. So?

  55. Stephen Jones said,

    April 13, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

    Anyway, I do think that Strunk's problem here isn't so much ignorance about the passive voice as fuzzy thinking.

    Or crappy expression.

  56. Chad said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 2:11 am

    I remember well the first time I was academically bludgeoned with Strunck and White. I told my teacher that she couldn't possibly be serious and that the book made absolutely no sense. She told me that I should neither use 'be' nor 'absolutely'. I still don't know why.

    But I do know that reading this article made me extremely happy.

  57. Edward Vitasek said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 4:20 am

    @Ellen: You're right. I'm sorry, I should learn only to post comments when I have enough time to proof read them as well. In addition to the confusion you cite, the next-to-last paragraph has "transitive verbs (active or passive)", when it should be "intransitive verbs …". Sorry for the mess.

    As for the confusion you cite: Strunk provides this set of corretions:

    "There were a great number of leaves lying on the ground." –> "Dead leaves covered the ground."

    Strunk is re-writing the sentence so that, rather than having the linking verb "were" (which, I think, he'd say is neither active nor passive), he now has the verb "cover" which is a "transitive in the active voice": Now, here's my interpretation: Strunk believes that constructions based on linking verbs are weak, and recasting the sentence to include an active transitive verb is better style. This is relevant in "use the active voice", because linking verbs can take neither active nor passive voice.

    My argument, then, is that Strunk does not think "there is" contains "passive voice", but that he thinks that "there is" does not contain a "transitive in the active voice." (The oft cited sentence: "Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.")

    If, however, Strunk subscribes to the theory that any verb that is not in the passive voice is automatically in the active voice, then I am wrong, as linking verbs would all be in the active voice. I do think, though, that Strunk is arguing not only against the passive voice, but also against linking verbs (especially in "perfunctory expressions").

    I hope this makes more sense. As much as I dislike Elements, I don't see evidence in the section "use the active voice" that Strunk doesn't know what the passive voice is.

  58. Ellen said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 10:30 am

    Looks to me like "covered" replaces "were lying on". That after gramatically transforming the sentence to "A great number of leaves were lying on the ground", in which "were" serves as part of the progressive past tense, not as a linking verb. Of course, that version does have an intransitive verb (in active voice, though), rather than transitive. But, if the section is about using active voice, why not simply change the "there were" plus active intransitive verb construction into the simple active intranstive construction. Changing an instranstive verb into a transitive verb has nothing to do with active voice or not.

  59. Ellen said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 10:42 am

    Oh yeah, and there's the replacement of the progressive past tense to the preterite. So, 3 separate changes related to the verb, in that example.

    1: Removing "there were"
    2: Switching to preterite tense.
    3: Replacing intrasitive "lie" + "on" with "cover"

    I see the first two as different, because "were lying on" is closer to "there were… lying on" than "lied on" is.

    And then there's the inexplicable change of "a great number of" to "dead".

  60. Edward Vitasek said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

    @Ellen: I do see your interpretation. Actually, I was thinking of exactly this when I said "[I still wonder whether that's the only interpretation.]" If you're reading the sentence like this, Strunk has replaced an intransitive in the active voice with a transitive in the active voice (and has changed aspect as well).

    However, I can't deny that it's also possible to read "a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground" as "a great number of dead leaves which lay/were lying on the ground", which would make "lying on the ground" part of the noun phrase headed by "leaves", rather than the sentences main verb.

    Semantically, the meaning of covered is definitely derived of "lying" as well as from an imputation from "a great number of" ("a few dead leaves" would not "cover").

    To me, it's far from clear what Strunk is advocating.

  61. Ellen said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 7:01 pm

    Wait, did or didn't the original have "dead"?

  62. Ellen said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 7:47 pm

    P.S. I'm not saying that "lying" functions as a verb in the "there were" sentence. I'm not actually sure of the grammar label there. But, in my view, the equivalent sentence without "there were" would have the past progressive, "were lying", not the preterite (is that the right term?), "lay" (or "lied" if one wants to regularize like I did in my previous post :) )

  63. Edward Vitasek said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 2:25 am

    @ Ellen: "Wait, did or didn't the original have "dead"?"

    Yes, it did have "dead". (I need to work on my accuracy. Seriously.)


    Also, my intuition agrees with yours: I'd render the sentence with progressive aspect, too. ("A great number of dead leaves were lying on the ground.") I'm just not sure how far I can trust my instincts. Is this simply a reaction to form (as both words "were" and "lying" appear in the original sentence), or is it something more complex (e.g. To me, "There was" implies some sort of perception, and the state described encloses the act of perceiving, so I'm naturally drawn to the progressive form).

  64. Alison said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 11:09 am

    I'm always relieved to find people who know what they're talking about disapproving of this rotten little book.

    A few years ago I started working with a chap who obsessed over it and would "correct" my writing not using his own judgement, but rather the "rules" in his dog-eared copy of Elements of Style.

    Of course, it cud just be my ritin wus carp…

  65. Mason said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 11:42 am

    As I see it, The Elements of Style fills a very specific, virtually universal need for a clear, concise, and compact reference book on style and usage for standard written English. People respond to this book because it's plain-spoken, pocket-size, and 100 pages or less. If Mr. Pullum would write, or at least recommend, a better book that fits this description, I'll buy a dozen copies.

  66. marie-lucie said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 5:54 pm


    – Look earlier in this thread and find a suggestion by John Cowan for a revised version of the Strunk original (considered in these parts as better than the later Strunk & White).

    – Prof. Pullum and other linguists have often recommended the MWCDEU (Miriam-Webster College Dictionary of English Usage) for its advice on style.

  67. Mason said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 6:54 pm

    @ Marie-Luce: Strunk & Cowan would do nicely, if it were printed and bound and available in bookstores across the country. Let me know when it's published.

  68. marie-lucie said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 7:01 pm

    sorry: MWCDEU (Miriam-Webster College Dictionary of English Usage)

    It is MW Concise DEU

    @Mason: You need to consult John Cowan himself, through his name.

  69. brad johnston said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

    Can someone please tell me how to send an email to Geoff Pullum? I'll never find my way back here, so if you see this, please send info (unless it's verbotin, n.t.s.) to Subject: Pullum

  70. Mason said,

    April 17, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

    @ Marie-Lucie: The Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage is a dictionary, first and foremost, and despite the word "concise" in its title, it's 800 pages long. Looks like I"m stuck with Strunk & White.

    [(myl) Joseph Williams' "Style: Toward Clarity and Grace" is 198 pages. The 50th anniversary edition of S&W is 128 pages. I bet you can handle the extra 70 sheets. ]

  71. Mason said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    @ MYL: I'll check it out. In my copy of The Elements of Style, though, the last page is number 105. You don't count the Forward and Introduction, do you? I promise you the average reader doesn't.

    Honestly, no book will ever compete successfully with Strunk & White unless it's shorter. Know your audience: college students and white-collar workers who lack the time, interest, and/or attention span to study more than they absolutely must. Asked to choose between a 100-page book and a 200-page book, I know which one they'll pick.

    The most thoroughly researched and well-written stylebook imaginable might as well be landfill if it's not accessible to the people who most need to use it.

  72. Mark Garvey said,

    April 30, 2009 @ 9:11 am

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  73. Richard Dougherty said,

    June 16, 2009 @ 11:53 am

    Dear all, especially Dr. Pullum,

    This focus of this dialogue verges on the ridiculous. As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, I was introduced to Strunk and White in the mid-70s, when serious scholars in the United states were already lamenting not only their students' lack of writing ability (including grammatical awareness), but also thier lack of general knowledge, for example, which countries were allied to the U. S. in WWII.

    Even as an undergraduate, I was sometimes allowed to see my peers' writings. It was confidence building– I mean like, I thought I was dumb or something. If only, like, you know, there had been something around like the Cambridge Grammar of English. I heard it's advanced compared to Quirk, et al (1985).

    Is there someway I could sue?


    Richard Dougherty

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