Taking Another Look at Strunk and White

By Maeve Maddox

April 16 was the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, a slim grammar reference that is recommended to students and writers everywhere. I wrote a post on it not too long ago, saying that it “deserves its long popularity as a concise guide to correct usage.”

This little book has sold more than 10 million copies since 1959. Its publisher, Longman, has commemorated the anniversary by producing a black leather-bound, gold-embossed edtion containing paens to the work written by prominent literary and journalistic figures from Dorothy Parker to Dan Rather .

Dennis K. Baron, professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, goes so far as to equate teeny Elements with Fowler’s massive and erudite Modern Usage:

“This [Elements of Style], together with…H.W. Fowler’s ‘Dictionary of Modern English Usage,’ are the two style books that are generally held up as the authorities”

Unlike many writers, I was not introduced to Elements as an undergraduate. It was not until many years later that I found it–literally–in the drawer of a desk assigned to me in a college English department. Since I already relied on Walsh’s Plain English Handbook to solve knotty usage problems, I didn’t have much occasion to consult Strunk and White. However, all my colleagues had a copy and recommended it to their students. I never doubted that it was an impeccable reference.

Until now.

A caustic review of The Elements of Style in the April 17, 2009 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” has sent me back to Strunk and White for a closer look.

According to Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum, head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh and co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002),

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.

Harsh words, but at least two of the items in Pullum’s criticism struck a chord with me: the entry on passive verbs, and the admonition against using adverbs.

I’ve often pondered the fact that many writers, not just students, but practicing adult writers, and even (gasp) English teachers, often identify verbs as “passive” that aren’t.

The explanation may well lie in the fact that White gives four examples of the passive, three of which are incorrect.

One of White’s incorrect examples of the passive,

There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground

brought 187,000 Google hits.

Here’s what I found by following one of the links. It’s from a teacher’s guidelines for writing lab reports:

Use the active voice (tense) [sic], not passive voice, when writing, it is much more direct and vigorous. For example, “Dead leaves covered the ground.” (Active voice) versus “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.” (Passive voice). I highly recommend the ‘little book’ entitled The elements of style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, it costs about $7.

White’s admonition against adverbs may explain the almost religious aversion to using adverbs felt by so many writers and teachers of writers. Here’s a headline I saw over a writing post:

Fight back against beastly adverbs

Personally, I like adverbs–not Tom Swifties, of course–but adverbs have their place.

Pullum’s iconoclastic condemnation of The Elements of Style will perhaps anger the guide’s numerous worshippers, but it raises some valid criticisms.

I’m going back to Strunk and White with a critical eye this time, and may do a page by page analysis of my own.

50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice
Longman’s Special Edition of The Elements of Style
In Priaise of The Elements of Style on its 50th Anniversary
Maeve on Passive Voice

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21 Responses to “Taking Another Look at Strunk and White”

  • Mike Perry

    The learned professor at the University of Edinburgh should have read Struck and White more carefully before he made his accusation. Here’s the entire paragraph that introduces the examples he criticized.

    “The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in the narrative concerned primarily with action but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expressions as ‘there is’ or ‘could be heard'”

    It’s quite obvious that Struck and White are NOT introducing those four examples as illustrations of passive voice. They’re expanding their previous remarks about using the active voice instead of the passive to an additional category of sentences. They are referring to “a tame sentence” in which “a transitive in the active voice” can also improve “perfunctory expressions as ‘there is’ or ‘could be heard.'” Tame and perfunctory are not the same as passive.

    Note too the text that follows those examples. Struck and White do not say, “when a sentence is made ACTIVE [as opposed to passive], it usually becomes shorter.” What they say is “when a sentence is made STRONGER, it usually becomes shorter.” The contrast they intend in those four examples is not between active and passive but between strong and tame/weak, with the weakness coming from the use of “There were,” “The reason he,” and “It was” in three of the sentences and a passive voice in a fourth.

    Struck and White made not be perfect and their 50-year-old book could perhaps use some revision for the twenty-first century. But Prof. Pullum’s accusation that the two didn’t know the different between the active and passive voice won’t hold up even the simplest scrutiny.

    The Chronicle of Higher Education should issue a statement correcting Prof. Pullum’s grievous error.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien

  • jess

    Thanks for explaining that, Michael! I was just coming from my feed reader to explain this as well. The section deals with active, strong construction of sentences in general, not only active vs. passive construction of sentences. I was taught in high school (if you will excuse the passive here) to never use the construction “there is” or “it is” in formal writing, and White seems to be emphasizing this as well. Be clear and concise instead of vague and long winded.

  • Kris

    Here is the link to the review by Prof. Geoffrey Pullum:

    http://chronicle.com/free/v55/i32/32b01501.htm

  • Cassie Tuttle

    Ever notice how grammar and language can be as controversial as politics? And how uppity some people can be about grammar, rules, and style?

    Language is a “living thing,” ever evolving. So … maybe some of the “elements” set forth by Strunk & White no longer apply or can be interpreted differently now. I suppose this Pullman fellow is entitled to his opinions.

    But isn’t it better to have some basis upon which to build our own style? Isn’t it helpful to have guidelines when we are struggling with usage?

    I say, “Lighten up, Geoffrey Pullman. And by the way, I think your article is stupid.” 🙂

  • Cindy Cotter

    I like Elements of Style, but it’s probably most useful to those who need it least. If you already know what a nonrestrictive relative clause is, then perhaps you don’t need to be told it’s parenthetic. If you don’t know what it is, will you profit from the advice that it should be set off with commas?

  • AravisGirl

    I use passive voice too often 🙁 My spell checker’s always fusing at me about it. I think it sounds pretty…

  • RustyN

    I agree with Cindy Cotter. I find Elements of Style requires an additional, more basic grammar book to explain the words mentioned in the rules!

  • PreciseEdit

    Interesting point about people identifying sentences as passive when they aren’t.

    I was teaching a writing course last week. Again and again the participants asked, “Is that a passive sentence?” In each case it wasn’t–it was just weak writing, such as sentences starting with “there” as a placeholder for the rhetorical subject. Eventually, we had to stop and take some time to examine the structure of passive sentences.

    I’m a fan of The Elements of Style, and I think most of the advice is useful: “do not overwrite,” “make the paragraph the unit of composition,” etc. The classic advice, of course, is “Omit needless words.” Most, if not all, of these so-called platitudes do offer valuable advice to those who wish to write well. I still recommend this book to my students and clients.

    Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    On the other hand, the 2 guides I read every year are Line by Line by Cook (published by the MLA) and Style: 10 Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Williams.

  • Eileen Andrews

    I had a feeling people weren’t really reading Strunk and White when the recommended it. Sort of like recommending someone read War & Peace…recommending is so much easier than critically reading it.

  • Kenneth Mark Hoover

    Adverbs are enervating to fiction.

  • Jim

    In response to:

    “It’s quite obvious that Struck and White are NOT introducing those four examples as illustrations of passive voice.”

    Clearly, the point was whether the Elements of Style discussion is helpful, clear, useful, and correct.

    The author of the present article provides at least one argument that the effect of Elements of Style is negative: even if the authors understood the difference between an active and a passive sentence, the example from the writing lab shows that their discussion did not clarify the issue.

    Geoff Pullum’s grammar with Rodney Huddleston, “The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language,” is one of the most (and arguably the most) impressive and remarkable scholarly achievements in the field of grammar. It is one of the most comprehensive grammatical descriptions of any language, ever.

    The professor can be regarded as an expert and his opinion should be taken seriously.

  • Kevin S.

    “The professor can be regarded as an expert and his opinion should be taken seriously.”

    Oh, really? Even when that opinion is demonstrably incorrect? Arguments advocating blind submission to authority on the basis of credentials are as unpersuasive, to me, as the rest of your post.

  • Bob

    “It’s quite obvious that Struck and White are NOT introducing those four examples as illustrations of passive voice.”

    Actually, it’s not “quite obvious.” Look closely at the passage cited:

    “The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in the narrative concerned primarily with action but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expressions as ‘there is’ or ‘could be heard’”

    This passage directly says that “the habitual use of the active voice… makes for forcible writing.” It does not say: *certain* uses of the active voice make for forcible writing; instead, it implies that the active voice itself is responsible for forcible writing, presumably in all or most cases (unless we are later told otherwise).

    Then, we are told that we can substitute a “transitive in the active voice” in the examples that follow. We are not told that we can substitute a transitive in the active voice for ANOTHER active voice phrase, even though that is actually what’s going on in the examples. Since we were told that the active voice makes forceful writing, we might reasonably conclude that the sentences to be corrected did not employ the active voice.

    A reader who already knows grammatical terminology will realize that the third sentence is limiting the first. But someone who doesn’t know grammatical terminology and its applications very well would assume that a paragraph which is endorsing the active voice and encouraging a substitution of a “transitive in the active voice” would probably be correcting examples that are NOT in the active voice. An uneducated reader wouldn’t necessarily realize, given the way this paragraph is written, that there are actually good and bad examples of active voice usage. Nor would they realize that some of the examples following a paragraph endorsing the “active voice” and “substitutions” involving it are actually ALREADY in the active voice.

    In sum, the paragraph cited is completely unclear about the status of these examples. The professor is wrong to say that Strunk & White think they are passive, but the comments here are wrong to claim that the passage couldn’t be interpreted that way for an uneducated reader. The professor may have no excuse, but is his reading “demonstrably incorrect”? Only by assuming facts not in evidence. You can’t prove that S&W understood what passive means on the basis of the quoted paragraph, anymore than the professor can prove that they thought their examples were in the passive voice.

    And clearly, on the basis of the nonsense I’ve seen identified as “passive voice,” quite a few other people have interpreted the passage the way the professor does.

  • Paul

    Rowling uses adverbs in dialogue consistently . . . didn’t do her any harm!

    I really wonder about creative writing rules at times.

  • jessiethought

    Great comments. Thanks Michael W. Perry.

    In response to Paul: (“I really wonder about creative writing rules at times.”) I think most of these are just suggestions (especially for writers who are beginning), general guidelines that usually make things better. Some creative writing “rules” are not rules at all, but we take them that way.

    Like I said, great comments! I like this site a lot.

  • Tim Mantyla

    Michael Perry writes:

    “It’s quite obvious that Struck and White are NOT introducing those four examples as illustrations of passive voice. They’re expanding their previous remarks about using the active voice instead of the passive to an additional category of sentences. They are referring to “a tame sentence” in which “a transitive in the active voice” can also improve “perfunctory expressions as ‘there is’ or ‘could be heard.’” Tame and perfunctory are not the same as passive.”

    I absolutely disagree. What is the evidence for this interpretation of their intent? If Strunk and White wanted to redefine the meaning of active and passive voice–concepts with a clear and established meaning–they should have clarified that intent explicitly.

    The fact that they didn’t is poor communication at best–something their book was intended to prevent!–and misunderstanding of the concepts themselves at worst. Pullum’s contends they misunderstand and misapply the active/passive concept, and rightly so.

    Indeed, there is a vast difference between tame or limp versus forceful sentences. Strunk and White confuse this difference for active versus passive voice. Readers shouldn’t, and they are misled by these false pillars of grammar.

    Furthermore, if Stunk and White wanted to include grammar advice, they should have titled the book more broadly, like “Elements of English Composition” or something similarly descriptive.

  • Renna

    Perhaps the problem is not the writing, but the fact that the teaching of today is failing in actually teaching students things like proper grammar and how to analyze texts? I’m from Canada, but most of my classmates throughout secondary school (grades 8-12 where I lived; we had no middle schools in the area) either did not care to learn, or the teachers were not great at communicating these things well enough. Many students come to university now with the barest idea of how to write an essay or how to analyze a reading. Unfortunately, they often do not know how to do either. It is my understanding, from talking with students from across Canada and the U.S., that this is a rather prevalent problem.

    I agree with Michael Perry in thinkig it obvious that Strunk and White were not confusing active and passive voice. Do they specify that passive sentences could be improved by making them active? No; they specifiy that a TAME sentence is often improved. Any misinterpretation of the examples that follow are from the reader’s own misunderstanding of the difference between a passive sentence and a tame sentence, or the between a passive sentence and an active one.

  • Rob

    “It’s quite obvious that Struck and White are NOT introducing those four examples as illustrations of passive voice.”

    I’m sorry but it is demonstrably not obvious at all. Those four examples have been cited by teachers and professors all over the US as examples of the passive voice. What’s more, because of Strunk and White’s condemnation of the passive, students and teachers all over the US try to avoid what they think are “passive voice” and even consider it a mistake. And the rot seems to be spreading and getting even sillier. A Canadian site recently said a competitor in a writing competition they held may have won had she not used several examples of the “passive”. The examples they gave from the story submitted were not passives but simply sentences containing versions of the verb “to be”.

    I was brought up outside the US on the likes of Fowler and Partridge but I heard so much about this great book (Strunk and White) that I ordered a copy. When it arrived I was astonished by its size. I couldn’t understand how anything so tiny could be compared with the likes of Fowler. The more I read of it the more astonished I became. The praise for the thing is inexplicable and crazy.

  • Warsaw Will

    Just to add to what Bob was saying, the whole section of the original Strunk in which these examples appear is called – “11. Use the active voice” – so it’s natural to assume he means in opposition to the passive. What other voices are there?

    He then says “The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive” and gives an example – “I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.” saying that it is much better than “My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.” Well, no contest, as nobody in their right mind would say a sentence like that. We hardly ever use pronouns as agents i passive constructions, and especially not “me”.

    And his main point – “Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expressions as ‘there is’ or ‘could be heard’”” is of course in the passive. Like Orwell, who said “Never use the passive when the active will do” in an essay full of passive constructions, Strunk didn’t actually seem to practise what he preached.

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    Strunk & White also said, of active voice, “This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”

    But I agree with them that a focus on active voice and on vibrant verbs does improve one’s writing.

    The professor sounds a wee bit jealous that 10 million copies of his book haven’t sold.

  • David Crosswell

    I’ll quite often use the passive voice and I work, predominantly with technical writing. It drops in a lyrical note that breaks up the sameness of the piece, refreshes the reader and aids in such aspects as knowledge retention. Rules are for breaking. If you don’t break rules, you don’t enter into forbidden territory and discover anything new.

    I’m sick to death of this rubbish over the verb `to be’ also. It deals with existence, and consequently, it’s the most exciting of all the verbs. Teachers, etc., provide the basics that apply to a discipline, at that given chronological moment. After that, you make up your own, in the ever-evolving world that is language. If you don’t, you exhibit no level of character or individual substance and your work, as such, becomes immersed into the collective, socially-acceptable, homogeneous lack of identity to which you condemn it.

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