Strunk and White — 50 years of stupid grammar advice

According to Geoffrey K. Pullum

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.

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8 Comments

  1. According to Ben Yagoda

    Questioner No. 2 said, “My thing is when people use ‘they’ as a singular — like, ‘Everyone should have their eyes examined once a year.'” Actually, there was no question: The audience member merely stared at the panelists, expecting universal tsk-tsking and rueful shaking of heads. But she wasn’t about to get any love from this group. One of the linguists pointed out, as gently as possible, that there was nothing wrong with using “they” that way, that in fact it made perfect sense — as writers from Jane Austen to the authors of the King James Version of the Bible had realized — and that the prohibition against it was the legacy of a small group of nitpickers who, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, basically invented a bunch of usage rules that unaccountably persist.

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  2. For prose and poetry writing, clearly style rules are out the window as creativity of expression is the aim.

    For analytical writing, non-fiction, journalism or everyday emailing and conversation though (let’s face it, most of us aren’t novelists or poets), isn’t it better to have a reference manual that provides answers to probably 90% of the grammar questions that most people would have? Modern common usage may render some of the pages in S+W obsolete or anachronisms of a more formalized era; however, the whole emphasis of the “little book” is on encouraging writing that is clear and concise, much like it’s own small number of pages! With meaning and intent two completely different things in communication, I think it is better to be confident that you will be understood rather than just hoping you will be. S+W is just one tool to help people be understood by following a common set of rules.

    You’re entitled to your opinion, but most people don’t have time to study the “deep and interesting” syntax of English grammar. This volume hasn’t endured for 90 years by being “trivial”, and calling S+W “idiosyncratic bumblers” drags down your argument with pointless name-calling of a beloved 20th century author and his college English professor. If you have other reference materials that you find superior, please recommend those instead so that others can discover them.

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  3. Jeff, I earn my living the same way, but I do have a few more criteria. I like to see writers try a few exciting things with rhythm and sonority, and I encourage them as much as I can. Lead sentences should get the reader hooked (not each time round, perhaps, but whenever the story demands it).

    I’ll confess: I do have S&W, but I also have some Hanon near the piano. I like Fowler’s (the old one and the more recent revised version), I have a great book called Watch Your Language! (Th. Bernstein/NYT editor) , and another one called Mind The Gaffe! I inspire myself by reading Updike, Orwell, and many others.

    Anyway…. my 5 centimes’ worth…

    Keep the ink flowing.

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  4. Kenneth – excellent example of poor grammar.

    Thankfully, I never learned grammar from Strunk and White, but I’ve had a few arguments with clueless amateur grammarians who drank it with mother’s milk.

    I earn my living as an editor and a writer and I have but one rule of grammar – write for clarity and edit for clarity. There are no concrete rules in grammar, only grammarians concreted into ridiculous and trivial language prejudices. Pullum is correct – they do great harm, by restricting the free flow of creative energy by tying up writers in irrelevant questions of what is right or wrong.

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  5. Strunk and White have endured as a gold standard for style for a reason. The fact you are unable to either understand or appreciate the need for proper syntax and grammar does not lie as a fault of theirs.

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  6. Hey Brad and Pullum:

    When the New Yorker publishes your writing for twenty years, you can diss E. B. White.

    What is ill-informed is Pullum’s rant.

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