A Grammarian’s Cri de Coeur

April 16, 2009 at 10:12 am (By Maxwell James)

The nation’s collective groan over yesterday’s tax deadline, along with the protests that attended it, may have overwhelmed the more cultish significance of today’s date – the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. But if this little book’s birthday does fail to make the news tonight, there’s at least one vital constituency who won’t be disappointed. In a memorable rant, grammarian Geoffrey K. Pullum dishes the dirt:

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.

Pullum’s article is far more than your typical ad libris, because he seeks to restore some respect for a venerable institution, one much damaged by Strunk and White’s best-seller – the passive voice:

We are told that the active clause “I will always remember my first trip to Boston” sounds much better than the corresponding passive “My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.” It sure does. But that’s because a passive is always a stylistic train wreck when the subject refers to something newer and less established in the discourse than the agent (the noun phrase that follows “by”).

For me to report that I paid my bill by saying “The bill was paid by me,” with no stress on “me,” would sound inane. (I’m the utterer, and the utterer always counts as familiar and well established in the discourse.) But that is no argument against passives generally. “The bill was paid by an anonymous benefactor” sounds perfectly natural. Strunk and White are denigrating the passive by presenting an invented example of it deliberately designed to sound inept.

Moreover, he damningly points out that The Elements of Style demonstrates a miserable understanding of the passive voice, offering four examples of its use of which three are actually in the active voice. They also fail spectacularly to take their own advice:

“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.”

The most striking aspect of Pullum’s critique is the extent to which its echoes reverberate into the present day. As he points out, Microsoft Word’s grammar checker automatically underlines every passive construction in a document, even if it is gramatically correct. But beyond that, Strunk and White’s “overopinionated and underinformed little book” eerily fortells the bloviating world of blogs, text messages, and Twitter, where factual (and needless to say, grammatical) accuracy frequently matters less than the frequency and forcefulness of assertion.

– Maxwell James



  1. Callimachus said,

    Any argument about grammar in the age of the computer strikes me as a squabble over the musical virtues of German and Italian opera in the age of rap music.

    As an editor, I find the passive voice alive and well. It is the more employed as the writer is less sure of his matter. It is used by timid writers trying to avoid a fight. It is a convenient red flag for me to spot a reporter who doesn’t know what she is writing about but doesn’t want to reveal that.

    Iconoclasm should be encouraged; everything should be tilted at at least once in a generation to be sure it still holds firm, or to be knocked down if it prove rotten. I don’t think this one hits.

    “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.” That seems perfectly plain and right to me. Put the heft of your writing, and the greatest care, into choosing the verbs and nouns. Don’t anguish over the adjectives and use too many and use them to try to say the essential things. That’s like putting fancy prints on a dress stitched all wrong that fits ill and falls apart.

    [It reminds me of W.C.Williams’ advice to poets:

    “Rather notice, mon cher,
    that the moon is
    tilted above
    the point of the steeple
    than that its color
    is shell-pink.”]

    In the sentence the essayist picks out as contradicting this, “weak” and “inaccurate” are necessary to the sense, and distinct, not mere adornment.

    I haven’t read Strunk & White in years; my memory or impression is that their advice is generally as good as, and essentially the same as, that dispensed more memorably by Mark Twain in his assault on Fenimore Cooper.

    I think the fault in Pullum is assuming that S&W were writing a guide to How to Write a Guide to Writing, not a general guide to powerful writing, to be used across many subdisciplines, with the obvious aside that every general rule has many valid exceptions.

  2. amba12 said,

    On insufficient thought, I’m inclined to agree.

    As both a writer who has tended to lay on the adjectives (and to a lesser extent, adverbs) myself and an editor who has been inclined to remove them, I think it’s good to be made self-conscious about them. Adjectives are like paint. Sometimes thick paint. Or thick makeup. To ban them entirely is to aspire to be a Hemingway parody, but they should have to pass strict tests.

    I feel the same way about Latinate words where Anglo-Saxon ones will do the job more honestly. Of course, it all depends on the effect you are aiming for, and I vividly remember a lesson in college on how the great power of English comes from having both modes at its disposal — the legacy of the palimpsest of invasions of the British Isles. (As in German, the A-S words for “die” and “death” bore no resemblance to each other, so we borrowed “deya” from Danish and “steorfan” was narrowed to “starve.”) Whoever taught this lesson pointed out how consciously Shakespeare played with this polyglot palette: “…the multitudinous seas incarnadine,/ making the green one red.”

    Finally, the passive voice better have a good excuse for showing up. As Pullum says, there are times when it’s the only choice and perfectly acceptable, but those times are a tiny fraction of the actual times it’s used. Much of the time the passive voice sounds unnecessarily evasive. Maybe the writer is just trying to avoid saying “I” all the time, or to sound objective and dispassionate, but the result is a tone of bureaucratic buck-passing and “there’s no there there.” Like in Spanish, you don’t say “I broke it,” you say “Dang! it went and broke itself on me.” Se me rompió

  3. Maxwell James said,

    Something that may not be clear from my post: I love The Elements of Style. For several years it was always within an arm’s reach of my writing desk, although in a paring-down effort a few years ago I gave away my copy. I do think much of my fondness for it was based on a childhood steeped in White’s prose, however.

    So it’s despite my love for that book that I genuinely enjoyed Pullum’s broadside against it. I don’t think he’s necessarily right on all, or even most counts, but it’s a well-placed blow, and perhaps a justified one.

  4. rodjean said,

    Strunk and White offer generally good advice: a technique to avoid particularly enervating prose. Years ago, I adhered to it rigorously, and trying to follow those rules imposed a variety on my sentence structure. But passive voice is sometimes right, and “that” is sometimes necessary to avoid convoluted sentences. They should not be, like the rule against ending sentences with a preposition, something “up with which I shall not put.”

    Grammatical rules are OK, and creative writers know when to break them.


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