Monday, April 20, 2009

Strunk and White's Elements of Style is 50 this month

And for its anniversary, the Chronicle of Higher Education lays into Strunk and White in the April issue. If you haven't had to suffer Strunk and White, it's a sort of folk-grimoire except that, instead of telling you how to cure warts with witch-hazel or banish fairies with goat gallstones, it has about a thousand pieces of advice on how to be having the well English grammer. There's no rhyme or reason to them; you just have to learn each one. The Chronicle explains that this is because neither Strunk nor White really knew any grammar, so each piece of advice has to be learned in isolation instead as part of a system. In other words, the advice is largely wrong.

50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice

The book's toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules. They can't help it, because they don't know how to identify what they condemn.

"Put statements in positive form," they stipulate, in a section that seeks to prevent "not" from being used as "a means of evasion."

"Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs," they insist. (The motivation of this mysterious decree remains unclear to me.)

And then, in the very next sentence, comes a negative passive clause containing three adjectives: "The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place."

That's actually not just three strikes, it's four, because in addition to contravening "positive form" and "active voice" and "nouns and verbs," it has a elative clause ("that can pull") removed from what it belongs with (the adjective), which violates another edict: "Keep related words together."

"Keep related words together" is further explained in these terms: "The subject of a sentence and the principal verb should not, as a rule, be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning." That is a negative passive, containing an adjective, with the subject separated from the principal verb by a phrase ("as a rule") that could easily have been transferred to the beginning. Another quadruple violation.
And so on. Interesting read that will teach you more grammar than the entire Elements of Style.

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