50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice: a rebuttal

I take issue with the opinions expressed by Mr. Geoffrey K. Pullum in his article 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” which appears in the April 17, 2009 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education: The Chronicle Review (Volume 55, Issue 32, Page B15).


Professor Pullum, head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh, writes an acerbic critique of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style as a standard text of English grammar, stating that the book was the primary vehicle through which grammar has been taught to American college students during the second half of the 20th century.  According to Pullum, this little book “provides just about all of the grammar instruction most Americans ever get.”  In his view this is atrocious, because both its authors were “grammatical incompetents.”


Professor Pullum selects a number of rules and examples from the book and goes on to explain why they violate those of standard English grammar.  In summation, he describes the text as “a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can’t even tell when they’ve broken their own misbegotten rules.”


Here I must confess my ignorance of the English educational system:  I do not know at what point English grammar is introduced into the public school curriculum in Great Britain.  I can say that, as an American student, I received my first formal instruction in English grammar in the 7th grade, when I was 12 years of age.  Under the tutelage of Miss Kelshner, a veritable “old maid” then close to retirement, I learned grammatical terms and how these parts of speech were used to construct proper sentences.  In those days we spent hours diagramming sentences, breaking them down into elemental parts of speech.  The training was strict and rigorous; I never forgot it.


As a freshman in college I was required to take a course in English composition.  This was not so much a course in grammar (indeed the subject was not formally discussed) as it was instruction on how to write well.  In my opinion Professor Pullum confuses the two.


Neither Will Strunk or E. B. White ever intended The Elements of Style to be a standard text of English grammar.  This is readily apparent in White’s introduction to the 1972 Macmillan edition, where he writes:  “In its original form, [the book] was a forty-three page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English….Seven rules of usage, eleven principles of composition, a few matters of form, and a list of words and expressions commonly misused—that was the sum and substance of Professor Strunk’s work.”  The Elements of Style was never designed to be a definitive text on English grammar like Professor Pullum’s Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.


First and foremost, The Elements of Style was written to instruct students on how to write well.  In White’s words, the book “does not pretend to survey the whole field.  Rather it proposes to give in brief space the principal requirements of plain English style.  It concentrates on fundamentals:  the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated.”  In practically the same breath, White also writes:  “even the established rules of grammar are open to challenge.”


Professor Pullum’s critiques of Strunk and White’s rules are like a bikini:  what they reveal is interesting, but what they hide is vital.


For example, Pullum uses considerable editorial space to decry the directive to “use the active voice.”  He goes on at great length to argue that use of the passive voice is not only justifiable but desirable.  According to my reading of the cited passage, Strunk and White agree:  “This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” (p. 13)


As for the lines of text cited by Professor Pullum as being improper examples of the passive voice, I would point out that these four examples follow immediately on the heels of this statement:  “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 expression as there is or could be heard.”  In short, the examples offered by Strunk and White are not served up as exemplary of the passive voice per se, but merely samples of how such writing can be made more vigorous and precise.


“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,” Strunk and White advise.  “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight space.”  I would point out to Professor Pullum that the authors go on to say:  This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech.  (my italics)


On the subject of the split infinitive, Pullum states that “the split infinitive has always been grammatical and does not need to be avoided.”  Again, the authors are in agreement:  “Some infinitives improve on being splint, just as a stick of round stovewood does.” (p.70)  “There is precedent from the fourteenth century down for interposing an adverb between to and the infinitive it governs, but the construction should be avoided unless the writer wishes to place unusual stress on the adverb.” (p. 52)


I could go on to address other arguments that Professor Pullum makes; but at this juncture, time and space constrain me.


Professor Pullum laments:  “Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write ‘however’ or ‘than me’ or ‘was’ or ‘which,’ but can’t tell you why.”  That may be the case.  But when I consider the dismal prose that is served up in countless scientific journals, stock prospectuses and educational reviews, I’ll take Strunk and White’s advice hands down—


Be concise.


Omit needless words.


Be clear.


Use definite, specific, concrete language.


And I stand with E. B. White when he wrote:  “Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.” (p. 77)


One comment on “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice: a rebuttal

  1. […] follows them: sound advice, backed by concrete examples. (There’s a nice rebuttal of Pullum here.) It’s evident that the book’s real sin — in Pullum’s view — is […]

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