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.
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