The House of No Elements of Style

« previous post | next post »

A few days ago, Geoff Pullum posted a meditation on the role of The Elements of Style in befuddling Americans about the nature of the passive voice ("Drinking the Strunkian Kool-Aid: victims of page 18", 6/6/2009). His point of departure was a passage illustrating the confusion, taken from a 2007 article by Ada Brunstein ("The House of No Personal Pronouns", NYT, 7/22/2007).

Last night, Ms. Brunstein sent me the letter reproduced below, in which she corrects Geoff's  conjecture that Strunk and White were directly responsible for her slip, and graciously offers to enlist (or more exactly, to be hired) as "an active proper-passive promoter".

The Language Log marketing department, bored with refunding the subscription fees of disgruntled readers, is delirious with enthusiasm (or would be, if it existed). But Ms. Brunstein's stated price is a copy of Strunk and White's book, signed and dedicated by Geoff, whose agent is also ontologically challenged. So it may take some time to set up the proposed promotional campaign.

Dear Professor Pullum,

Imagine my surprise when I realized that ghosts of grammar gaffes past were roaming the virtual halls of the language log. Perhaps I can put their souls to rest. When I wrote those ill-fated words (almost two years ago) I made a mental note to check my reference to the passive voice. I suspected I might have misused it. But then the New York Times called and I got weak-kneed and bleary-eyed, as aspiring writers do when the New York Times calls, and I completely forgot to do the checking that needed to be done. (It was a passive choice rather than an active choice, if you’ll forgive the near-pun.) What’s more, a savvy and, I might add, refreshingly kind reader pointed out the error in a private email and after slapping my forehead a few times I moved on with my admittedly complicated life at the time.

I’ve never actually looked through Strunk & White in my life and I’ve had more than enough training in linguistics to know the difference between active and passive (or at least enough training to consult the right sources in moments of confusion). It was simply an honest mistake.

In any case I’m afraid we find ourselves (perhaps to your chagrin) more or less on the same side of this issue. Technically speaking, I misused the term “passive voice” and I’m not fond of the kind of prescriptivism I’m told is found in Strunk & White.

There’s only one thing to do at this point.

In 2003 Jessica Simpson mistakenly thought that the name of a brand of tuna fish, “Chicken of the Sea”, actually meant there was chicken in the can rather than tuna. This incident created such a media frenzy that the company cleverly hired Ms. Simpson to do a promotional event, which received even more coverage.

You must now, Professor Pullum, hire me as an active proper-passive promoter. I can reach a wide audience and, having experienced first-hand the effects of improper usage, can more effectively caution others about the consequences. Together we can make sure there are no more victims. I have just one favor to ask. As I already mentioned, I’ve never read Strunk & White and in order to better carry out my new task I think I should at least take a look so I know exactly what I’m up against. Would you be so kind as to send me a copy (obtained by whatever means you deem fit so as to avoid supporting the publisher of such works)? Signed and dedicated, if it’s not too much trouble.

Ada Brunstein


  1. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 7:14 am

    Let me be the first to depart from the George Will Code by loudly and unambiguously pointing out that my conjecture was wrong, and Strunk and White were not to blame. I am most grateful to Ada Brunstein for sending in her letter. Now I will go away and ruminate over lunch about whether I can stomach the idea of going out to purchase a copy of the hated little book so I can send her a personally defaced copy as a gift. Maybe I can find one in one of the charity thrift stores that line Nicholson Street… We'll see. Ada, supply your postal address to our office. Or have your people call my people.

  2. Jake T said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 9:53 am

    I think she made it apparently clearly that you should make an active choice NOT to support the publishers of the book.

    If you're really going to subvert the system, you're going to have to take her implication to steal one seriously.

    (Perhaps I've been reading too much 'steal this book' type crap?)

  3. Faldone said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 9:58 am

    If you have a Friends of the Library booksale in your area it would be an ideal place to get one. I'm sure they will have at least one copy and you will be supporting your local library. You could call the library at 0131 242 8020. I'm sure they would have some helpful information. If there is no such thing as FotL booksales in Scotland perhaps one of your stateside contacts or one of your Facebook fans could get one here and mail it to you.

  4. bulbul said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 10:27 am

    There's always Ebay

  5. Sili said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 10:54 am

    Amazon has lots of used books costing next to nothing.

    For those more ethically inclined I believe there's a coöperative of second bookshops that run their own online shop – I just cannot recall the name of it.

    In short, it shouldn't be to hard to get a copy of S&W without supporting the publisher – and their estates. In fact, you'd be supporting someone who's had the good sense to get rid of their copy of the wile little pamphlet.

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    I was going to offer to cover NY-Edinburgh postage for a like-new never-read copy I thought I had in my office (unsolicited free gift from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on the occasion of my admission to its bar some years back, presumably if foolishly aimed at improving brief-writing style), but I alas seem to have discarded it.

  7. Chris said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 11:14 am < 2nd hand book sales

  8. grackle said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 11:24 am

    ABE books lists numerous copies, in the UK, for sale at 1 ₤ or less. See

  9. Bloix said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 11:48 am

    Powells, 4 bucks:

    And you could also buy, "Adios Strunk and White" while you're there.

  10. Sergio said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 11:55 am

    Taking a used copy out of the market might force a poorly advised undergraduate student to spend his video game money on a shiny, new S&W. Certainly this would be much worse than buying a copy yourself. Fortunately, the full text is available online at You can then send her a signed and tidily annotated copy…

  11. Jan Freeman said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

    I can offer a paperback copy of the 1959 first edition; it has a couple of marginal notes where White changed Strunk's "which"es (from 1918) into "that"s, but otherwise clean. Just say the word…

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 10:22 pm

    I know LL eschews partisan politics, but I must inform you of another skeleton discovered in the closet of Judge Sotomayor, namely a newly-revealed 1994 speech in which she recommends her audience reread Strunk & White at least every two years. In the gratitude-for-small-favors department, she only "blister[s]" at the "unnecessary use of the passive voice," suggesting she accepts that there might be such a thing as a necessary use. The relevant text is on page 8 of the pdf found at:

  13. dr pepper said,

    June 11, 2009 @ 12:23 am

    Well that's that then. Mr. Obama, deliver the culprit to the Language Log Dungeon immediately! We don't need another Strunk constructionist on the bench.

  14. Adam said,

    June 11, 2009 @ 4:37 am

    I'm surprised no-one has used the term "passive-aggressive" yet.

  15. Chris said,

    June 11, 2009 @ 8:52 am

    Worse, she also decries the split infinitive, describing it as a "basic error". (Although she then goes on to point out that for bilingual speakers, some errors come from improperly following the grammar of your first language; Spanish is a language with one-word infinitives, so maybe that made her more susceptible to that particular misunderstanding of _English_ grammar.)

  16. greg said,

    June 11, 2009 @ 8:52 am

    I favor some active anti-Strunkian guerrilla tactics. Find a local teacher who is using the book and replace it with a copy of your own favored grammar manual and deliver the liberated S&W to Ms Brunstein

  17. dr pepper said,

    June 11, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

    Be sure to spraypaint "WORDS ARE PEOPLE TOO!" on the wall.

  18. Noetica said,

    June 11, 2009 @ 9:04 pm

    I'm surprised no-one has used the term "passive-aggressive" yet.

    It is remarkable that no one has yet commented on this style of introducing a point. Someone has to be the first; and very often that someone takes the opportunity to tease others for their slowness of wit. (No offence meant to Adam; and I have been guilty of this myself.) I suppose one riposte would be: "Yes! What took you so long?"

  19. Dan Lufkin said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 9:37 am

    The passive meme continues its journey through conservative gurudom: Charles Krauthammer's column in today's Washington Post says "On religious tolerance, [Obama] gently referenced the Christians of Lebanon and Egypt, then lamented that the "divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence" (note the use of the passive voice)."

    CK has been savaging BO's Cairo speech for naïvely equating American peccadilloes to Islamic outrages, i.e. "self-flagellating apologetics," a phrase which will give you a Google back door to the entire ranny-gazoo.

    Well, at least he didn't say passive tense.

  20. Great Writing | David Knopp said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 10:31 pm

    […] is not a forte of mine (one I'm trying to remedy). However, I do enjoy a shot of fine prose, and today's enabler came courtesy of Language Log. This entry was posted in Links by David. Bookmark the […]

RSS feed for comments on this post