Fifty Years of Stupid Grammar Advice

A review of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style on its 50th anniversary.
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Section: The Chronicle Review https://www.chronicle.com/section/The-Chronicle-Review/41/
Volume 55, Issue 32, Page B15

Excerpts from an article by Geffrey K. Pullum, head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh and co-author (with Rodney Huddleston) of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002). Read the full article at https://www.chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497

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.

Sadly, writing tutors tend to ignore this moderation, and simply red-circle everything that looks like a passive, just as Microsoft Word’s grammar checker underlines every passive in wavy green to signal that you should try to get rid of it. That overinterpretation is part of the damage that Strunk and White have unintentionally done. But it is not what I am most concerned about here.

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. “At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard” is correctly identified as a passive clause, but the other three are all errors:

  • “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” has no sign of the passive in it anywhere.
  • “It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had” also contains nothing that is even reminiscent of the passive construction.
  • “The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired” is presumably fingered as passive because of “impaired,” but that’s a mistake. It’s an adjective here. “Become” doesn’t allow a following passive clause. (Notice, for example, that “A new edition became issued by the publishers” is not grammatical.)

The treatment of the passive is not an isolated slip. It is typical of Elements. The book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules. They can’t help it, because they don’t know how to identify what they condemn.

“Put statements in positive form,” they stipulate, in a section that seeks to prevent “not” from being used as “a means of evasion.”

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,” they insist. (The motivation of this mysterious decree remains unclear to me.)

And then, in the very next sentence, comes a negative passive clause containing three adjectives: “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.”

That’s actually not just three strikes, it’s four, because in addition to contravening “positive form” and “active voice” and “nouns and verbs,” it has a relative clause (“that can pull”) removed from what it belongs with (the adjective), which violates another edict: “Keep related words together.”

“Keep related words together” is further explained in these terms: “The subject of a sentence and the principal verb should not, as a rule, be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning.” That is a negative passive, containing an adjective, with the subject separated from the principal verb by a phrase (“as a rule”) that could easily have been transferred to the beginning. Another quadruple violation.

The book’s contempt for its own grammatical dictates seems almost willful, as if the authors were flaunting the fact that the rules don’t apply to them. But I don’t think they are. Given the evidence that they can’t even tell actives from passives, my guess would be that it is sheer ignorance. They know a few terms, like “subject” and “verb” and “phrase,” but they do not control them well enough to monitor and analyze the structure of what they write.

The copy editor’s old bugaboo about not using “which” to introduce a restrictive relative clause is also an instance of failure to look at the evidence. Elements as revised by White endorses that rule. But 19th-century authors whose prose was never forced through a 20th-century prescriptive copy-editing mill generally alternated between “which” and “that.” (There seems to be a subtle distinction in meaning related to whether new information is being introduced.) There was never a period in the history of English when “which” at the beginning of a restrictive relative clause was an error.

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.

Photo Group Collections to Illustrate Your Blogs and Other Writing

Our Flickr account holds photos from conferences, banquets, and meetings. These are collected in photo albums on the Phot Albums page. In addition to the chapter's photos, we are connected to several groups in Flickr that contain interesting images to use for your blogs and other writing related to technical communication. Scroll to the section on the Photo Albums page called Group Photos and review the collection for each group. You'll be sure to find something you can use or get a few laughs. The groups are listed as follows:

  • Usability & Accessibility – Photos from the UPA.
  • This Is Broken – Photos about the brokenness (bad design) of items, places, etc.
  • ERROR – Photos of any and all kinds of errors… mainly dealing with computers.
  • Aesthetics of Failure – Photos of breakdowns, slippage, entropy (disambiguation), accident, glitches, failures in sound, image, concept, utopian and dystopian experiments.
  • Drafting & Drawing Instruments – Photos of all things related to drawing and drafting.
  • Writing Machines – Photos of typewriters, printing presses, and movable type—anything to do with the mechanical reproduction or creation of the written word.
  • Writing – Photos about writing and the life of writers. If you are a writer/journalist, you can show fragments of your writing life. Includes photos of handwritten pieces, pens, notebooks, Moleskines, and so on. Photos of people writing and artworks if the theme is “words, writing, writers”.
  • Written In Stone – Photos of inscriptions (i.e., words, phrases, names) carved into stone such as on tombs, monuments, and buildings.
  • Camera Toss – is a particular form of kinetic photography— the camera must be airborne and unobstructed by the photographer or other means.

    This is a “technique” group, and the technique here is regarded by some as insanity. For we are the reckless folks on flickr that enjoy the abstract, chance, generative, physical photography that results from throwing our cameras into the air (most often at night in front of varied light sources). It is about trading risk for reward in the pursuit of art. It is not about being a photographer, it is about enabling the photography that happens naturally when you let go of the process, give up control, and add a hell of alot more variables. It is about physics, gravity, angular momentum, acceleration, direction, chaos, and timing… most of which you have tenuous control of at best!

  • Travel Writing Bloggers – Photos that go with the words of travel writing and just traveling bloggers.
  • Travel Writing Photographs – Photos related to travel writing with links to blogs dedicated to writing fiction.
  • You Have to be Wealthy Everything that represents wealth – expensive cars, luxury houses, interiors, expensive furniture, rich man’s food, expensive yachts, etc… If that’s something that rich person would buy, eat, visit, sit on, rent, drive, wear or even talk to – get it here! The photos of actual rich persons are welcome too (but it has to be obvious from the photo that he or she is rich).
  • Flickr API – Photos related to Flickr API projects. The group’s aim is to drive awareness of the Flickr API, projects that use it, and those incredible ideas that programmatically exposed systems produce. Think Google API + Amazon API + Flickr API with a bit of GMail thrown in.
  • Washington, DC – Baltimore Chapter

If you encounter another group you think we should add, please send us a note with the name of the Flickr group.