Were Strunk and White grammatical incompetents?

“The Elements of Style” is one of the most highly esteemed books ever written on the art of writing. But is that esteem well-founded?.

Not at all, according to Geoffrey K. Pullum, head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh.

In an article titled “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice” Pullum writes:

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.

The authors won’t be hurt by these critical remarks. They are long dead. William Strunk was a professor of English at Cornell about a hundred years ago, and E.B. White, later the much-admired author of Charlotte’s Web, took English with him in 1919, purchasing as a required text the first edition, which Strunk had published privately. After Strunk’s death, White published a New Yorker article reminiscing about him and was asked by Macmillan to revise and expand Elements for commercial publication. It took off like a rocket (in 1959) and has sold millions.

This was most unfortunate for the field of English grammar, because both authors were grammatical incompetents. Strunk had very little analytical understanding of syntax, White even less. Certainly White was a fine writer, but he was not qualified as a grammarian. Despite 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.

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.

Even the truly silly advice, like “Do not inject opinion,” doesn’t really do harm. (No force on earth can prevent undergraduates from injecting opinion. And anyway, sometimes that is just what we want from them.) But despite the “Style” in the title, much in the book relates to grammar, and the advice on that topic does real damage. It is atrocious. Since today it provides just about all of the grammar instruction most Americans ever get, that is something of a tragedy. Following the platitudinous style recommendations of Elements would make your writing better if you knew how to follow them, but that is not true of the grammar stipulations.

“Use the active voice” is a typical section head. And the section in question opens with an attempt to discredit passive clauses that is either grammatically misguided or disingenuous.

We are told that the active clause “I will always remember my first trip to Boston” sounds much better than the corresponding passive “My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.” It sure does. But that’s because a passive is always a stylistic train wreck when the subject refers to something newer and less established in the discourse than the agent (the noun phrase that follows “by”).

For me to report that I paid my bill by saying “The bill was paid by me,” with no stress on “me,” would sound inane. (I’m the utterer, and the utterer always counts as familiar and well established in the discourse.) But that is no argument against passives generally. “The bill was paid by an anonymous benefactor” sounds perfectly natural. Strunk and White are denigrating the passive by presenting an invented example of it deliberately designed to sound inept.

After this unpromising start, there is some fairly sensible style advice: The authors explicitly say they do not mean “that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice,” which is “frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” They give good examples to show that the choice between active and passive may depend on the topic under discussion.

Sadly, writing tutors tend to ignore this moderation, and simply red-circle everything that looks like a passive, just as Microsoft Word’s grammar checker underlines every passive in wavy green to signal that you should try to get rid of it. That overinterpretation is part of the damage that Strunk and White have unintentionally done. But it is not what I am most concerned about here.

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.)

These examples can be found all over the Web in study guides for freshman composition classes. (Try a Google search on “great number of dead leaves lying.”) I have been told several times, by both students and linguistics-faculty members, about writing instructors who think every occurrence of “be” is to be condemned for being “passive.” No wonder, if Elements is their grammar bible. It is typical for college graduates today to be unable to distinguish active from passive clauses. They often equate the grammatical notion of being passive with the semantic one of not specifying the agent of an action. (They think “a bus exploded” is passive because it doesn’t say whether terrorists did it.)

The treatment of the passive is not an isolated slip. It is typical of Elements. 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.

Read the whole thing ….

2 thoughts on “Were Strunk and White grammatical incompetents?”

  1. Thank you for posting this, Cecil. I feel vindicated in a way, because I could never get rid of the passive voice in my writing, and Strunk and White wrote that using the passive voice should be avoided like the plague.

    This article is such an eye-opener because I, like many others, have always known Strunk and White to be the grammar gurus.

    What puzzles me is why no one dealt with the grammar gurus’ grammatical incompetence much earlier. Well, at least now we know!

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