Monday, April 13, 2009

Pullum on Strunk & White

Thousands of gullible students who were always told that their grammatical mastery proved they were smart don't like hearing that their little Paperback Gospel isn't worth the match it would take to burn it.

So Geoffrey Pullum's recent piece for The Chronicle Review of Higher Education has gotten a good amount of attention. Because he tore Strunk and White a new one. Actually "tore" isn't the right word. His argument and his claim was too fine and careful a critique. Rather, he took a scalpel and dexterously sliced a new one.*

Some of the gems from "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice":

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.

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.

as well as
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.

But he saves his sharpest barbs for the gnats who think they can bother him into admitting ignorance and defeat.

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

  • No needless words there.

    *Two new ones?


    1. There are no needless words here, either:

      Maybe it'll cure you of your smugness, though I somehow doubt it.

    2. Read it. Not impressed. Nobody denies S&W wrote a style guide - except the people who hold it aloft and worship it. Our beef with it is that it IS a style guide treated like a grammar book, its authors' preferences elevated to law.

    3. I hear ya, Ridger: on the other hand, who elevated that book to the status of "law?" If you say that the book was elevated to that status by "the gnats who think they can bother him into admitting ignorance," then you have made no more objective claim than if I say that those who ignore the advice in Strunk & White are "gnats who think they can bother the rest of us into admitting ignorance."

      In other, more generic terms: think of S&W as an argument. It may not have been taught as an argument for a long time, but neither (frankly) was Derrida or Foucault, not to mention Chomsky's linguistics, which is effectively taught as law.

      So your beef ought to be with what you said your beef is with: the treatment of the book... but what "we" (for the moment I'm lumping myself with the S&W defenders, for the sake of rhetorical opposition) tend to hear is a beef with the book itself (see Pullum).

      Is that a fair distinction?

    4. Yes.

      But, of course, it's only human to displace one's irritation that way. :-)

      And personally, I much prefer Joseph Williams's book anyway.


      This post doesn't really address one of Pullum's main points: that the mistakes Strunk and White are trying to correct aren't really mistakes.


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