• Were Strunk and White Wrong?

    An old, yellowed copy of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White sits on my bookshelf. I read it years ago, probably several times. It seemed like it contained good advice on writing. Writers I respect have recommended it to me.

    But Geoffrey Pullum, head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh, thinks otherwise. He rips into it in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Just a taste:

    “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.

    Oh, but there is so much more. I can almost taste the bile. It should be noted though that Pullum has co-authored (with Rodney Huddleston) The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. So the invective he directs toward Strunk and White comes with substantial credibility.

    Pullum’s rant is a fun read, for those so inclined.

    Share
    Comments closed
     
    • Have you seen the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language? It is a totally different thing than Strunk & White. (Nearly a thousand pages of dense, technical grammar vs. approximately 100 pages of sloppy usage advice.) The idea that one book is taking sales from the other is laughable.

      • @Peter Seibel – Thanks. I thought of that too but hadn’t edited the post before your comment (now I have). Of course that makes your comment seem out of place. I’ll remove it if you wish (let me know). The reason to keep it is to credit you with calling out the error, for which I am appreciative.

    • My favorite response to The Elements of Style is Spunk and Bite by Arthur Plotnik. It’s a fun read and makes you a better writer while it debunks many of the trickier parts of Strunk and White.