Room For Debate on Strunk and White

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When The New York Times asked me to contribute to the discussion of The Elements of Style on their "Room for Debate" blog, I figured they would dredge up a bunch of aged worthies of the New York literati who would pother on about the virtues of the little book, and I would be alone out there in saying that it did not deserve our respect and could actually be educationally harmful. But it was not as I thought: all of the other four invited commenters (Patricia T. O'Conner of, Stephen Dodson of Language Hat, Ben Yagoda of, and Mignon Fogarty the Grammar Girl) are distinctly critical. Elements gets a rough ride. Perhaps not as rough as I would like, but never mind, there is a developing consensus here that I approve of. (And E. B. White himself might even have approved; he thought that no smooth ride is as valuable as a rough ride.) Dodson reminds us that on Language Hat he has called Elements "the mangiest of stuffed owls", a book that has been "undercooked and overpraised" (I knew I liked this guy). Check it out.

Of course, once the moderator had spent the necessary 48 hours digging out from under the gigabytes of comments that had been flying in at the speed of light, hundreds of comments appeared below the prepared remarks of the five invitees; and they are overflowing with the sort of righteous pothering and ad hominem attacks that I had been expecting.

You know (can I talk frankly with you, since you're Language Log readers?) I get so sick of seeing the same allegations again and again. I hate the allegations and I despise the alligators. Once again I see that someone does a price comparison of a used paperback copy of Elements with a brand new hardback copy of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Now first, even if you can get Elements for a dime, that's not much use if its advice is hopelessly wrong. Second, they play a double game. People who don't know about CGEL say "Who's this guy we've never heard of who doesn't know shit from Shinola, criticizing our wonderful little book? Who anointed him the big expert?" But those who do know that I co-authored a major reference grammar of English play a different game: they say it's too big of too expensive or whatever to be a rival to Elements, and accuse me of being jealous, as if my goal had been to get hundreds of thousands of college students and technical writers carrying CGEL around with them in specially manufactured gigantic canvas pockets bolted into their clothes. For heaven's sake, CGEL is not intended for college freshers! It's a great big fat ugly reference work and I never mentioned it in connection with why Strunk and White are bumbling grammar idiots or what students should read instead.

Another thing in the Times comments that I've seen elsewhere is a commenter asserting that I lack a sense of humor: Elements is really just joking. That's why it deliberately breaks all its own rules, see! It's just a merry joke! Well, if it's just humor, I wonder why students aren't told that. (Would a Dave Barry "Mr Language Person" column do just as well?) And why do all these bigwigs rhapsodize about the book with tears in their eyes if it's jus' foolin' and none of its rules are seriously meant? I assume these "Pullum has no sense of humor" people are not Language Log readers, are they. Or maybe they are. Perhaps I ought to tag all my posts with the "Humor" tag…

Go on, comment if you like, I don't care anymore. Do your worst…

Oh, before I go, one more thing. I'm also seeing commenters say that the book you should really have is Henry Fowler's Modern English Usage! What the hell is going on here? Fowler's book dates from 1926. It's a third of a century older than Elements; and Fowler was a marked eccentric even then. Some of his articles are very scholarly (he was a man who really did know grammatical analysis), but some are completely quixotic. Others are pages and pages of weird raving about things he just happened to have bees in his bonnet about (he prattles on for a page about "Irrelevant allusion", for example). Some of it is very interesting for a serious English language scholar. But as a guide for writers in the 21st century? A book that was clearly in preparation more than a hundred years ago, by a man born in 1858? When Harper's and American Heritage and Merriam-Webster all have much better books out? What is this epidemic of nostalgia?


  1. Colin John said,

    April 27, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

    To be fair, I still refer to the book as 'Fowler' when I actually mean the 3rd edition, edited by Robert Burchfield and published in 1996. Maybe some of your correspondents were doing the same. The 3rd edition is much less idiosyncratic and prescriptive than Fowler's original or Gowers' 2nd edition (from 1965). It's one of the places I go first when I'm uncertain or challenged (although as I am from the UK I never came across Strunk & White).

    [I hardly know how to break it to you that I don't have a high opinion of Burchfield's work. You'll think I'm some sort of universally negative curmudgeonly usage book smiter. But here is a nice exercise. In Burchfield's rewritten entry "Preposition at end" there are two examples cited where the preposition is not stranded — which would mean it is not a preposition at all under the traditional (and wrong) analysis, but rather an adverb. Can you find those two examples? —GKP]

  2. fiddler said,

    April 27, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

    After I read this post, I did something I've meant to do for months: used Google to see what you actually look like. After all the grumbles and rants, I expected an ogre, but confoundingly, you look like a friendly person–even a happy one!

    This will change my reading of your posts forever.

    [Well, I suppose this is good. But hey, even if I did look a bit ogrish (ogreish? ogerish?), the true things I say would still be true.

    And the funny ones would still be funny, come to that. —GKP]

  3. Franz Bebop said,

    April 27, 2009 @ 8:12 pm

    Prof. Pullum, THANK YOU for speaking out on this topic.

    I am very happy that your writings on Strunk and White are attracting attention. Lots of people agree with your views. It's endlessly entertaining that you are able to defend these ideas so persuasively.

    Don't worry if it seems that the majority of the responses are negative. It's generally true, on the internet and in other forums, that responses tend to come from people who are angry or who disagree, while people who are satisfied tend not to speak up.

    Besides, even if it were true, that you and the other LL professors were lonely voices with few fans, so what? You are academics. It's your job to ruffle feathers. If an academic is not going to take an unpopular stand, then who will? If you want to please everyone, then you should take a up a career in public relations. Changing people's minds takes time. Stay with it.

    I know nothing about you except what I've read here on Language Log and from your book "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax." Your grumbles and rants are entertaining and enlightening. You come across as a man with a refined sense of humor, who shares genuine wisdom about language in breezy and entertaining little polemics. It's utterly refreshing to read commentary like this on the topic of grammar. I hope someday to be able to write half as well as you.

    Just one request for you and the other professors here on LL: Please write more books! Two-fisted, opinionated books on grammar that directly challenge the silly rules that fill older books.

    The purpose would not to be to pick a fight, but to show up for the fight. English-speakers may not have a language academy as the French do, but there certainly is a source of authority when it comes to English grammar, and that authority is books. The Cambridge Grammar may not be enough — so write more of them! If White can revise Strunk, why can't Pullum revise the two of them? Imagine walking into a Borders bookstore and purchasing a copy of Strunk, White and Pullum.

    [Actually, under the usual rules of alphabetical order, that would be Pullum, Strunk and White. And the royalties could be shared in a faire and equal manner among all those authors still living… But no, I don't want in on the deal. I don't even want the copies all burned and the publisher thrown into jail. I just want people to stop wittering on about how wonderful it is, and to stop assigning it to modern-day students. It is a period piece, a little document showing what strange things went on in language and writing instruction at the beginning of the 20th century as people from the 19th compiled their collected peeves. It should be compared with Ambrose Bierce's even more idiosyncratic and kooky little book Write It Right! (1909). A little piece of Victorian peevological arcana, ill-informed and misleading if taken literally today. But read it if you like, alongside Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. —GKP]

  4. Colin John said,

    April 28, 2009 @ 7:10 am

    Hey, No, I'm not upset (nor surprised, come to that) by your view on Burchfield. I was just wanting to point out that some of the commenters might not have been quite so ridiculous in that they might have meant the more recent version rather than Fowler's original, which I find a great read, but not to be taken seriously.
    I feel like I'm intruding on a private argument here as I hadn't heard of Strunk & White until I discovered LL, but I would be interested to know if there is a usage guide which comes from an initial British English standpoint which you would recommend to a non-specialist (but interested) reader.

  5. Lindsay Blackwell said,

    April 28, 2009 @ 10:46 am

    I am by no means asserting that you lack a sense of humor, but I found your comment about Elements being just a "merry joke" interesting and worthy of expansion. I tend to view most grammatical guides as "merry little jokes" anyway, meant more for guidance than as an end-all book of things you must and mustn't do.

    In college, I have encountered many, many professors who swear by the merits of Strunk and White. One in particular—my current Creative Writing professor—insists that any grammatical query can be resolved by simply reading Elements. When workshopping our own writing in class, she is swift to point out every comma splice, sentence fragment, ending preposition, split infinitive… the list is endless, but those are her biggest gripes.

    As a fan of more descriptivist treatments of spoken and written English, I myself use an absurd amount of sentence fragments in my writing, particularly in my fiction. I also am not bothered by split infinitives or the dreaded ending preposition, much to my professor’s dismay. I am often told, “Please refer to Strunk and White. They will tell you all you need to know.” Obviously this has caused for my resentment of the little grammar “gem,” but upon further inspection, I’ve often found Strunk and White to be far more forgiving than other prescriptivist grammar guides. This passage, from the fourth edition, I found particularly interesting:

    The question of the ear is vital. Only the writer whose ear is reliable is in a position to use bad grammar deliberately; this writer knows for sure when a colloquialism is better than formal phrasing and is able to sustain the work at a level of good taste. So cock your ear. Years ago, students were warned not to end a sentence with a preposition; time, of course, has softened that rigid decree. Not only is the preposition acceptable at the end, sometimes it is more effective in that spot than anywhere else. (77)

    So while Strunk and White are by no means exempt from criticism, I do believe that a lot of their usage rules are indeed written in good humor. They acknowledge that a good writer can break almost any grammatical “rule” and will make said judgments based on his or her own aesthetic. Perhaps also why Strunk and White feel it fitting to break so many of their own “rules.”

    I find that Elements is a handy tool for basic grammatical questions, but should by no means be taken as a sort of grammatical law. I do agree that students, instead of being pummeled with the tiny book’s praises, should instead be warned to regard Elements, and any style guide for that matter, with their own discretion.

  6. JonW said,

    April 28, 2009 @ 10:57 am

    I’m not too surprised at this “epidemic of nostalgia”. The usual rants of the peevologists which send people scurrying for comfort in their copies of elements or modern English usage usually have as a (stated or unstated) premise that these days most people can’t speak English “properly” and that skill with English is generally in decline. If we accept that the way in which English is currently used by the masses is a debased and degraded form of the pure and (One True) English of earlier times, looking for guidance from the late 19th and early 20th centaury makes a lot of sense.

  7. Ann Davie said,

    April 28, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

    If you're talking about usage, I think the best "reference" is to just read widely (and yes, I know I split an infinitive…I do that regularly…and I don't care). Read from every genre, era and as many different authors as you can. Just read. You'll soon learn that it's not about rules, but about what works for the particular situation. The subtly of a message may depend on not following rules.

    I could never adhere to something that proposes to dictate the elements of "style"…whose style?

    I know I'm only a layman (and I must admit that I cringe when someone tries to use layperson…but that's just me). I simply love reading and learning about language. I revel in the myriad of writing styles the world has to offer.

  8. Phill Hallam-Baker said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 7:02 pm

    I only became aware of Strunk and White's idiotic advice when Microsoft Word acquired a grammar checker. Since then I have been turning off the stupid. Although, Microsoft does tend to turn it back on from time to time.

    First to go was the passive voice idiocy. Then the ridiculous objection to the use of 'which' and however.

    It really would be nice if there was an option to disable Skunk and Trite derived rules entirely.

  9. Tony Whitt said,

    April 30, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

    My favorite comment about the absurdity of Strunk and White's advice was one I heard during Marc Acito's recent NPR commentary, in which he was talking about the examples the book uses to explain the differences between "shall" and "will":

    When it comes to "shall" and "will," Strunk and White gives the following example: (12) "A swimmer in distress cries, 'I shall drown; no one will save me!' " But a suicide says, "I will drown; no one shall save me!" And I say, "You two (pedantic) know-it-alls deserve to drown." I mean, what about "Help!"

    Amen, brother.

  10. James Kabala said,

    April 30, 2009 @ 7:25 pm

    Tony Whitt:

    Actually, that particular example seems clearly meant to be funny, even if I wouldn't agree with that assessment of the book as a whole.

  11. Melissa said,

    May 1, 2009 @ 1:07 am

    Nice essay. I thought the Grammar Girl's essay was interesting though…isn't her podcast a weekly bitching about stylistic preferences masquerading as rules, and other miscorrections?

    If it's not, I'd be happy to hear that. Her "Quick and Dirty" series of podcasts has just expanded to include dog training, and she's chosen an excellent trainer who uses modern, scientifically based training methods, rather than the dominance poppycock people love to blather about. It's the dog training equivalent of a language usage podcast written by a linguist.

  12. ben said,

    May 1, 2009 @ 2:50 am

    What I'd like to know, Dr. Pullum, is how you *really* feel.

    [You mean, like, are my days filled with anger and bitterness and outrage and my nights a sleepless hell of tossing and turning and worrying that The Elements of Style is still out there doing harm? Naaahh! I'm a happy guy. I have roots in Santa Cruz and a contract as a professor in Edinburgh and I'm teaching in Berkeley this summer and I live with the philosopher I love… I have a great time. I giggle a lot. Life as a linguist is fun! A lot of furious bloggers have been saying I must be jealous because I explain what a lot of crap there is about grammar in Elements. Jealous of those guys? They are freakin' dead! —GKP]

  13. Anonymous Cowherd said,

    May 1, 2009 @ 6:17 pm

    @Colin John: "…they might have meant the more recent version rather than Fowler's original, which I find a great read, but not to be taken seriously."

    I'm not one of the Fowler-pushers here, but I would like to chime in: I got a used copy of Fowler's original a couple of years ago, and found it immensely entertaining, mainly *because* it was so hard to predict what Fowler would say about any given usage, and his writing style is so erudite and 19th-century. As long as you think of it as a snapshot of historical crankdom and not a textbook, "Modern English Usage" is a great browsing book.

    Contrariwise, I picked up the more recent "Modern American Usage" — Fowler updated for dumb American readers by some more recent dummy — and found it insufferable. It managed to lose most of the charm of Fowler's writing while not adding any sensible advice for writers. It wasn't an enjoyably quixotic cranktext anymore; just a schoolbook that happened to be wrong about everything.

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