Happy Birthday, The Elements of Style?

by Kim on April 17, 2009 · 20 comments

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Not everyone is excited to celebrate though — Geoffrey K. Pullum, head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh, takes on the famous book in  this article — “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice” — in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

As much as I love being, to my friends anyway, the grammar nerd, my technical knowledge of grammar isn’t that great. That’s why a lot of Pullum’s critiques of The Elements of Style were just a bit over my head. However, he does make a good point that if Strunk and White weren’t as great at grammar as everyone thinks they were, then this is a poor book to be using as the basis for grammar education in schools.

His best argument, in my opinion, is that Strunk and White’s advice comes off as just a bit bossy and not really grammatical. He notes,

The book’s contempt for its own grammatical dictates seems almost willful, as if the authors were flaunting the fact that the rules don’t apply to them. But I don’t think they are. Given the evidence that they can’t even tell actives from passives, my guess would be that it is sheer ignorance. They know a few terms, like “subject” and “verb” and “phrase,” but they do not control them well enough to monitor and analyze the structure of what they write.

There is of course nothing wrong with writing passives and negatives and adjectives and adverbs. I’m not nitpicking the authors’ writing style. White, in particular, often wrote beautifully, and his old professor would have been proud of him. What’s wrong is that the grammatical advice proffered in Elements is so misplaced and inaccurate that counterexamples often show up in the authors’ own prose on the very same page.

I think that’s probably my biggest concern with the way grammar is taught — as a series of “dos” and “don’ts” that have little basis in what actually makes good writing. Sure, you have to give some kids strict rules in order for them to learn to write, but those strict rules then scare people into taking the leap to becoming good writer. They’ve been told so many times “Never start a sentence with a conjunction” or “Never use the passive voice” that they’re afraid to break the rules when necessary.

I never learned grammar from The Elements of Style; in fact, I didn’t get a good grammar class until I was a junior in college.  In that class, we learned how sentences are constructed and the pieces that make up the English language, but were never given a set of rules for things we could and couldn’t do which was a huge blessing. My grammar isn’t awesome, but at this point it is good enough and flexible enough to know when it’s alright to “break the rules” so I can write the sentence I want to write.

How did you learn grammar in school? Have you ever been taught grammar? What’s the best or worst piece of grammar advice you’ve ever recieved?

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