Down with Strunk and White

13 April 2009 at 9:34 am 19 comments

| Peter Klein |

Geoffrey Pullum does’t think much of the ubiquitous grammar guide, celebrating its 50th anniversary this week. The Elements of Style “does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students’ grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.” (Thanks to Gary Peters for this link to a free version, available for just a few days.)

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19 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Michael F. Martin  |  13 April 2009 at 10:53 am

    Hooray. S&W is a list of rules. It’s a fine list, but it’s not a theory. As a summer associate at the law firm of McAndrews Held & Malloy I was introduced to Joseph Williams books on style. He struck me like a lightning bolt. I wish everybody would read him and toss S&W. Alas, following rules blindly takes less effort than learning, much less applying, theory.

  • 2. Warren Miller  |  13 April 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Well, it’s hard to know where to start in light of such ignorance as Prof. Pullum’s. I’ll be preparing a lengthy rebuttal in a day or so, when I have more time. For now, however, we should not that Pullum might not be the most objective source in town: He co-authored (with Rodney Huddleston) The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002). Worse, check this howler from his column in the Chronicle of HIgher Education (bolding added):

    The land of the free in the grip of The Elements of Style.

    Pullum seems to advocate fragments as part of his approach to ‘deconstructing’ grammar. I, for one, am delighted that he’s now polluting young minds in the U.K., and not stateside.

    According to the C.V. on his website at the University of Edinburgh, Prof. Pullum was at the University of California at Santa Cruz for 26 years (1981-2007). About the best that can be said for that sorry waste of tax dollars is that its setting overlooking the Pacific is stunning, truly spectacular. The looniest of the Loony Left have long claimed UCSC as their bastion of idiocy.


    P.S. Before Barrister Martin decries Strunk & White, he should learn how to form simple plurals. P. 1 of S&W can teach him that. Yeah, forming plurals is a rule, but even a lawyer should know how to follow a few of those.

  • 3. Cliff Grammich  |  13 April 2009 at 2:44 pm

    S&W can offer perhaps a needed lesson on clarity here. I thought Peter’s reference to the “free version” was to the manual, not the Pullum article! Strunk’s original guide is available for free at

    Michael, I’m a big fan of the late Joe Williams, and took his courses on style at U of C, but they’ve their own quirks–or, dare I say, flaws. Some of them are noted at .

  • 4. Peter Klein  |  13 April 2009 at 2:46 pm

    Cliff, you got me!

  • 5. Michael F. Martin  |  13 April 2009 at 2:56 pm

    Sorry to hear that he passed away. That is sad.

    I clicked through to see this criticism an am happy to report that I found no salient criticism of his *theory*, only criticism of his application of the theory to his own book.

    I must admit that I came first to the *The King’s English* and second to Williams. Perhaps Williams’s theory does not stand on its own. But I refer back to S&W only to conform when that is required of me. I hate rules.

  • 6. Michael F. Martin  |  13 April 2009 at 2:57 pm

    …of grammar.

  • 7. Michael F. Martin  |  13 April 2009 at 3:01 pm

    …of grammarians. Language is a social game.

  • 8. REW  |  13 April 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Or, if Stephen Pinker is to be believed, language is about rules and memorized exceptions. See the short version: . The long version in paperback is pretty good value for the money. If you are tired of Chomsky, pick it up.

  • 9. Cliff Grammich  |  13 April 2009 at 4:27 pm

    Michael F. Martin–some amused agreement on rules. I’m still trying to figure out where you screwed up on plurals in the first comment. Yet if one cannot consistently apply one’s own theory, then just how good is it? Is this a case of those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach?

    On that note, I should say Williams was an excellent teacher (and, from what I recall through the mists of time, a good man). And I do refer to his books from time-to-time. But the reviews I noted make me wonder if Williams did his best work in part by teaching students how to think more clearly (the best work any teacher can do?), or if I benefited from first having Williams as a teacher, then reading his subsequent books over time. I agree with the amazon reviewer that Williams’s rewrite of Parsons is troubling. But would a future Parsons benefit from having somebody like Williams help him express his thoughts more clearly?

    Incidentally, at the time I took his courses (many, many moons ago now), I don’t recall Williams thinking S&W should be tossed. Indeed, it was a required text for his course. Whether he dropped it when later versions of his work were available, I do not know.

  • 10. David G. Hoopes  |  13 April 2009 at 11:42 pm

    Strunk and White is not my favorite style book (it is a style book not a grammar book). The book examines a small set of common punctuation and stylistic problems (grammar too?). Others who have written good style guides include James Kirkpatrick, William K. Zinsser, and Deirdre McCloskey (very helpful and important for economists).

    Strunk and White’s slender volume features brevity and a droll tone that separates it from just about any other style guide. This brief approach is an especially good reference for the student who is taking a full load and will not want to stroll through the longer books (McCloskey’s Economical Writing is also brief).

    The more serious writer will enjoy reading Kirkpatrick and Zinsser.

    For usage, Fowler is the standard reference.

    Most students struggle more with style and punctuation than grammar. Proper usage is a lost cause.

  • 11. Warren Miller  |  14 April 2009 at 12:52 am

    Cliff, let me help you out re Comment #1. Mr. Martin wrote, “I was introduced to Joseph Williams books on style.” Proper writing would have it, “. . .Joseph Williams’s books on style.”

  • 12. Cliff Grammich  |  14 April 2009 at 7:48 am

    David–Fowler rather than Turabian?

    Warren–I thought that was what you might have meant. But then the error is in forming the possessive, not a simple plural, right?

    O&M: come for the management theory, stay for the lessons in style (or minutiae of grammar?)? The more trivial the point, the more, alas, I may excel . . .

  • 13. David Chen  |  14 April 2009 at 9:24 am

    Maybe I lack imagination, but I can’t think of a better argument for social and historical construction than a bunch of economists arguing about objective standards of good writing.
    @Warren, the NYT is ambivalent; the British disagree.

  • 14. Peter Klein  |  14 April 2009 at 9:27 am

    David Chen, fair enough. Just don’t mention “performativity,” or you’ll find yourself banished to our sister blog. :-)

  • 15. David G. Hoopes  |  14 April 2009 at 3:53 pm

    Turabian is more about technical style isn’t he? Proper citations and such. Fowler discusses how people use the words that might not be quite right. Many use “Impact” and “impacted” in ways that would make Fowler weep. “Gender” has changed meanings. It’s traditional use was as a grammatical term. Only in the last twenty or thirty years has it been used as a synonym for sex (the noun).

    David Chen: I don’t think anyone considers the elements of language to be objective. Usage and style are perfect examples of socially constructed meanings. The issue is, who do you follow: Fowler or MnM?

  • 16. Warren Miller  |  14 April 2009 at 4:00 pm

    Well, Cliff, around here we call it, “Ready! Fire! Aim!”

    You are 100% correct, of course. Next time, please read what I’m thinking, not what I’m writing. :-)

    Thank you for the gentle correction, and, Mr. Martin, I apologize for writing like a garbage salesman with a keyboard full of samples, none of which is attributable to S&W.

    Whew. The next time I start a rake fight, I hope I remember to bring my rake. . . .

  • 17. Cliff Grammich  |  14 April 2009 at 4:21 pm

    David C., are you calling me an “economist”? Dem’s fightin’ words (or at least a fighting word). For the record, I’m an interloper–although I could probably pass as an economist before I could pass as a linguist!.

    David H., that’s a fair point about Turabian. I guess I’m just more used to looking up her work than Fowler’s (whose work is, to be sure, very useful). “Gender” drives me up the wall. I suspect it came into wider usage as “sex” was increasingly used to refer not to biological division but physical acts. But I should probably cease my interloping on linguistics.

    Warren–one of my favorite quotes is from Richard J. Daley’s press secretary, who admonished the press covering the late mayor not to print what he says, but what he meant to say . . .

  • 18. David  |  18 April 2009 at 2:57 am

    I advise students to read a lot of good books rather than study grammar. I’m teaching students from a variety of backgrounds in Taiwan, but their most common mother tongues are Chinese and French. I don’t know if I have had any success, though.

    Should they insist on guidance, I recomment Stephen King’s “On Writing.” I think most of his novels are silly, but there is nothing wrong with King’s style. The Economist’s “Style Guide” is also quite good.

  • 19. Cliff Grammich  |  21 April 2009 at 10:29 am

    Reading good books is the best way to learn better writing, but I’m not sure how many students know how to profit from that. I’m embarassed to admit that I might have been in my 30s before I could start doing that profitably. (Not reading good books per se, but reading them for style.)

    I recommend anyone looking for both rules to follow and a style worth emulating see Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss.

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