50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice

Elements Of Style - 50th Anniversary Edition

I admit, there is something endearing about Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.  It’s written in that Waspy New England egghead style that people who read the New Yorker enjoy.   Unfortunately, much of the advice is just plain wrong.  There is a new fiftieth anniversary edition, but Geoffrey Pullum won’t be celebrating:

After Strunk’s death, White published a New Yorker article reminiscing about him and was asked by Macmillan to revise and expand Elements for commercial publication. It took off like a rocket (in 1959) and has sold millions.

This was most unfortunate for the field of English grammar, because both authors were grammatical incompetents. Strunk had very little analytical understanding of syntax, White even less.

Some of the recommendations are vapid, like “Be clear” (how could one disagree?). Some are tautologous, like “Do not explain too much.” (Explaining too much means explaining more than you should, so of course you shouldn’t.) Many are useless, like “Omit needless words.” (The students who know which words are needless don’t need the instruction.) Even so, it doesn’t hurt to lay such well-meant maxims before novice writers.

“Use the active voice” is a typical section head. And the section in question opens with an attempt to discredit passive clauses that is either grammatically misguided or disingenuous.

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.)

“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.”

An entirely separate kind of grammatical inaccuracy in Elements is the mismatch with readily available evidence. Simple experiments (which students could perform for themselves using downloaded classic texts from sources like http://gutenberg.org) show that Strunk and White preferred to base their grammar claims on intuition and prejudice rather than established literary usage.

Consider the explicit instruction: “With none, use the singular verb when the word means ‘no one’ or ‘not one.’” Is this a rule to be trusted? Let’s investigate.

  • Try searching the script of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) for “none of us.” There is one example of it as a subject: “None of us are perfect” (spoken by the learned Dr. Chasuble). It has plural agreement.
  • Download and search Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). It contains no cases of “none of us” with singular-inflected verbs, but one that takes the plural (“I think that none of us were surprised when we were asked to see Mrs. Harker a little before the time of sunset”).
  • Examine the text of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s popular novel Anne of Avonlea (1909). There are no singular examples, but one with the plural (“None of us ever do”).

It seems to me that the stipulation in Elements is totally at variance not just with modern conversational English but also with literary usage back when Strunk was teaching and White was a boy.

Is the intelligent student supposed to believe that Stoker, Wilde, and Montgomery didn’t know how to write? Did Strunk or White check even a single book to see what the evidence suggested? Did they have any evidence at all for the claim that the cases with plural agreement are errors? I don’t think so.

Read the whole article here.

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3 Responses to 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice

  1. Wallace Fard says:

    Is this your blog or Pullum’s?

  2. Whew–thanks. I can now stop yelling at talking heads who say “none are”!

  3. Chad Himmel says:

    Good article, but, ugh, I will not give this one up. In most “none” cases, the singular verb should be preferred. The way “none” really works with a plural verb is when the plural subject is explicit or implied: “They were none too happy about it,” or “We were none of us happy about it,” or “We are none of us good writers.” Following from there you might say, “None of us are good writers.” And sure, from there just argue that the plural is always implied, but sheesh, really? I mean, are people REALLY saying things like, “They none of them were happy”? Sure, fine.

    Here’s another problem I have with Pullam’s article. Is usage found in written fictional conversation really the proper basis for establishing a rule of written grammar? Anyway, I would need to see more convincing arguments than those stupid few. Here’s what I mean…

    Wilde was just using spoken language for his FICTIONAL character: “Charity, dear Miss Prism, charity! None of us are perfect.”

    In Dracula, Dr. Seward’s diary is the writing of a FICTIONAL character. To me that’s a little different than the author’s writing as a narrator.

    And Montgomery uses “none” many times in singular and plural forms in the voices for her FICTIONAL characters, and generally the explicit plural context is there. I couldn’t find an example where Montgomery as the narrator ever used “none” in the implied plural context.

    Character: “We none of us really know her yet, but”

    Character: “We’re none of us killed,” said Marilla grimly, “and none of the buildings was struck. I hope you got off equally well.”

    Character and Narrator: “I do hope none of the children were caught out in it,” murmured Anne anxiously. As it was discovered later, none of the children had been

    Narrator: The twenty-third of May came. . .an unseasonably warm day, as none realized more keenly than Anne and her little beehive of pupils, sweltering (…) in the Avonlea schoolroom.

    Character: said Mrs. Sloane. “…I always did think that Mrs. Allan dressed rather too gay for a minister’s wife. But we are none of us perfect.”

    Narrator: This was a new Anne whom none of her pupils had ever seen before.

    Narrator (from Anne of the Green Gables): And of all the excited performers-elect none was so excited as Anne Shirley

    Narrator (from Ida’s New Year Cake): because none of them was able to go home

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