Strunk and White

I’ll admit to being a bit of a grammar geek (in addition to several other kinds of geek), so I was interested in Geoffrey Pullum’s takedown of Strunk and White in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  I have positive impressions of Strunk and White from school, but I haven’t actually looked at it much in recent years.

Some of the review’s criticisms are kind of silly, I think:

Notice what I am objecting to is not the style advice in Elements, which might best be described the way The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy describes Earth: mostly harmless. 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.

I want to defend “Omit needless words.”  What it means is that you should constantly ask yourself as you’re writing (or better yet as you’re editing) whether you’re including unnecessary words or not.  It’s not just a matter of knowing which words are unnecessary; the more important point is that this is something you should pay attention to. This is actually one of the most useful of all S&W’s maxims, and one of the hardest to follow.

The really scathing part of the review is the stuff about grammar and usage (as opposed to style).  Pullum makes a convincing case that S&W are utterly incoherent on a lot of these points:

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.

Pullum’s completely right on all this. He also has great examples of sentences from S&W that manage to simultaneously violate four or five of the authors’ own rules and yet sound just fine.  (Yes, I know that’s a split infinitive.  No, I don’t care.)

The stricture against the passive voice is a constant problem for scientists, because we’re also often taught to avoid writing in the first person when describing our procedures.  So should I say “The decay rate was measured” or “I measured the decay rate”?  Either way, someone will be mad at me. Once you realize this, it’s actually kind of liberating: since someone will be mad either way, just do as you please.

By the way, my favorite usage guide is Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage, which I first learned about from a lengthy review by David Foster Wallace in Harper’s in 2001 (not linkable, as far I can tell).

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

4 thoughts on “Strunk and White”

  1. Seriously, what a kvetchy article.

    OK, “Omit needless words” isn’t exactly an algorithm, and yet it’s the single best piece of advice in S&W’s otherwise very good book.

    Is there actually an algorithm that would mechanically communicate to anyone – anyone at all – what “Omit needless words” communicates to a writer willing to listen?

  2. “There was also a panel discussion on the NY Times site with Pullum and a couple of others€¦”

    No, as anyone who follows the link will see, there was a gang attack upon Strunk & White’s book hosted by the New York Times.

  3. I read Strunk and White now as entertainment. White’s style works well for a mid-century wordsmith. He’s got a wicked sense of humor.

    As a guide to how 21st century students should write? Not so much.

    Writers of grammar books commonly violate their own rules. I have an article around about this…somewhere. As for Strunk & White’s most famous fan?

    Ted Kaczynski. The Unabomber’s copy of Elements of Style was heavily annotated and went up on auction along with many of his other books. I learned that Kaczynski corrected copies of the FBI’s data used against him, since the FBI writers were not exactly wordsmiths. This, of course, only helped to convict Kaczynski.

    Excellent 2009 article about this from College English, “The Fighting Style: Reading the Unabomber’s Strunk and White.” Have a look at:

    I have a PDF copy as well, if you’d like it.

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