Monday, April 13, 2009

It's Not The Elements of Grammar

I've seen a lot of people linking to this essay about Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. Other than the fun of seeing someone take a shot at a sacred cow, I'm not sure why. It is one of the most pointless things I've read in a while. Geoffrey K. Pullum wastes several paragraphs to tell us that The Elements of Style is a very poor guide to English grammar. This is something like telling us that Robert's Rules of Order is a poor cookbook, or that a thesaurus is not a good dictionary. While it may be true, it misses the point. The Elements of Style is, in fact, a style manual. It lays down basic rules and advice to get novice writers thinking about how style can be the difference between good and bad writing. It is not a grammar.

I get the feeling that Pullum's beef is with bad teachers who mis-use the book or who apply it's rules as if they were all you needed to know about syntax. He tells us that “(d)espite the post-1957 explosion of theoretical linguistics, Elements settled in as the primary vehicle through which grammar was taught to college students and presented to the general public, and the subject was stuck in the doldrums for the rest of the 20th century.” That is surely an overstatement. While I don't doubt that some students were handed Strunk and White and never told about grammar, I do doubt that it was the “primary vehicle” used to teach it. In the classes I've taken and the books I've read I was always told to read a style manual and consult a good grammar. I'm sure that Professor Pullum is correct in saying that Elements has been misused. That might have been an interesting topic for him to have written about.

Instead we get to read Pullum picking nits about alleged contradictions in Elements where Strunk and White violate grammatical precepts that they have laid down. We get to read Pullum showing us dialog written by famous authors that violates Strunk's rules of grammar. Foolishness. In his introduction E.B. White quotes Professor Strunk on the subject of stylistic inflexibility; “It is an old observation,” he wrote, “that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules.” And I repeat, (at the risk of not omitting needless words) that Strunk and White were not giving us rules of grammar. A style book must, of course, deal with grammar, which is sadly a source of confusion for Professor Pullum.

Pullum tells us that his intention is not to criticize the style manual part of this style manual (sort of like saying that you are not going to review the map parts of the atlas) and then goes on to do just that. He has apparently never read an academic paper, because he feels that the advice to “be clear” is unnecessary, and that “do not explain too much” is self-evident. He tells us that Elements is just wrong when it says that a split infinitive can be used to emphasize an adverb. The adverb, he writes, is best emphasized at the end of the sentence. I think a few Star Trek fans can tell him that when we boldly go where no man has gone before, it is the adverb that is the focus of the sentence.

The Elements of Style lays down simple, pithy, easy to understand instructions to help the writer marshal his words in the most effective manner possible. A good writer should know these elements well enough to use them and to know when to go beyond them. Lazy teachers may have misused it as a grammar. I'm sure it has also been misused as a shim to stabilize a wobbly table. Perhaps someone should write an essay on how Strunk and White have thus done a disservice to American carpentry. It would certainly be as valid as Pullum's essay.

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