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?

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

GoldenMoonCasinoMississippi April 17, 2009 at 8:59 am

Very good stuff, thanks for the review.

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Lu April 17, 2009 at 9:24 am

I didn’t have a good grammar class either, when I was in middle school. Then I got to high school and we lost so many points for misplaced commas that I had to teach myself all the rules. I read “Eats, Shoots and Leaves.” Such a good book!

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Jeanne April 17, 2009 at 10:07 am

Like most of the writing tutors who work for me, I learned “intuitive grammar” from reading. Once in college a friend showed me how to diagram a sentence, because I’d read about it but never seen it done.

Best advice: use a semicolon (instead of a comma) to connect two sentences
Worst advice: don’t end a sentence with a preposition

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BiblioMom April 17, 2009 at 11:49 am

I wish I had better grammar. There are parts of grammar and punctuation that I just can’t seem to grasp no matter how hard I try. My problem is that I write how I talk and that’s not the best thing. In High School and College I was worried about my thoughts and getting that across that I paid little or no attention to the specifics of HOW I did. I have to say that I enjoy The Elements of Style. There is something comfortable about that little book. There are parts that are outdated and overly critical but it’s still a definitive work of grammar.

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Memory April 17, 2009 at 11:54 am

I learned basic grammar in elementary school, but I picked most of it up on the fly. I read a lot as a young child, and I ended up absorbing grammar on an instinctive level.

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Susannah April 17, 2009 at 2:04 pm

I, too, picked up most of it on the fly, reading a lot of things from a lot of different sources. I do remember, though, that even though I had m4d sk1llz with most stuff in fourth grade, I did have to take the “commas inside/outside quotation marks” test twice because I got a D on it the first time… and I actually did worse on it the second time! Ack!

Nowadays, I’m pretty good except for the whole “titles in quotation marks at the end of sentences” issue.

The one thing I picked up much later — probably early college, actually — was who/whom. I remember it because you should use “whom” with anything where you could use “him.” But that’s pretty much the extent of it. We had a language usage and grammar course in high school (aka LUG, a name which sounded about as exciting as the class itself), and I just cannot imagine the heights of excitement they must have reached.

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Susannah April 17, 2009 at 2:09 pm

Oh, and the best piece of advice I ever got: elimination of “to be” verbs, breaking me of my passive voice habit and tightening up my writing immeasurably. Last hour, last semester of high school. A couple years later I had a prof who made fun of people who teach their students to avoid those verbs, but I found her ridiculous in just about every way, so ignoring her was easy :)

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Teresa April 17, 2009 at 4:11 pm

I was lucky enough to get formal grammar instruction in high school, using a grammar textbook that had us identifying subjects and objects, putting commas in the right place, writing complex-compound sentences, etc. I don’t think you need that kind of technical knowledge to be a good writer, but it’s invaluable to me in my day job as a copyeditor.

I do like Strunk and White as a style guide, not a rule book. Their advice is generally sound because it identifies errors that lots of beginning writers make without thinking about it. But I do know a fair number of writers and editors who do exactly what Pullam says and treat it is a rule book and do whatever they can to avoid the passive voice, even if in some cases, the passive voice is the best solution.

And when it comes to grammatical teaching, I find that so many so-called rules, such as not splitting infinitives or never ending a sentence with a prepostion, are just arbitrary ideas that came into fashion at some point and that people still follow for no good reason. Personally, I’d rather see split infinitives than subjects and verbs that don’t agree.

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Care April 17, 2009 at 6:15 pm

I remember being so glad when I graduated out of grammar classes and into literature classes! and then I chose a tech major in college and never had any word-fun and writing-fun again. Well, not until I got into blogging about books.

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Rebecca Reid April 18, 2009 at 7:48 am

I remember liking Strunk and White when I read it years ago. After reading the critique of it, i want to revisit it just to see what it’s about. Very interesting.

I agree that grammar shouldn’t just be “dos” and “don’ts” but I do think we’ve come pretty lax about “rules” and I think it helps to have some structure before we go and break them. But you’re right: it shouldn’t scare us away from them.

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Sherrie April 18, 2009 at 11:19 am

Hi Kim,
I’ve got my Week 7 posted for the Blog Improvement Project. Have a great week end!

Sherrie

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theexile April 20, 2009 at 2:04 pm

Learned things like parts of speech, types of sentences—declaritive, imperative, etc.—punctuation (although really didn’t get a good grasp of using semicolons until reading Faulkner in grad school) from elementary school through high school. But along the way really didn’t learn good writing skills until freshman comp. Even through undergrad my grammar could be spotty. Then gave myself a crash course by reading Elements of Style.

I would have to suggest reading Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite as a rebuttal of Strunk and White.

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Kim April 17, 2009 at 6:48 pm

I’m lucky that I’ve always had pretty good intuitive grammar, although I tend to use a lot of commas (nothing intuitive about that!). Eats Shoots and Leaves is on my TBR shelf — very excited.

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Kim April 17, 2009 at 6:52 pm

I love diagramming sentences! In a class I took on tutoring, we talked a lot about intuitive grammar and how hard it can be to teach grammar to people who don’t have a good intuitive grasp of grammar.

Ahh, the semicolon — one of the best pieces of punctuation :)

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Kim April 17, 2009 at 6:55 pm

Yes — it is nice to have something that seems definitive when you’re learning some of the rules of grammar.

The thing about learning grammar, I think, is that it doesn’t really make a lot of sense at first and so it seems overwhelming. Plus, the way we talk and the way we write aren’t the same which is very frustrating!

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Kim April 17, 2009 at 6:57 pm

Me too. I credit most of my grammar to how much good stuff I read when I was little. That’s the best way to learn grammar — learning rules is boring!

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Kim April 17, 2009 at 6:59 pm

Ha ha, “m4d sk1llz” :)

I still can’t do who/whom consistently — there is a part about it on an episode of The Office which always makes me laugh.

I loved Grammar and Language (my college grammar class), but that’s because I’m a huge nerd. I’ve been known to try and diagram sentences when a little tipsy…

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Kim April 17, 2009 at 7:04 pm

If I were going to be a copy editor, I’d brush up on my grammar again — I’m sure it’s helpful.

Good point about Strunk and White as a style guide not rules. It’s tempting to want grammar to have strict rules, but so many of them are just arbitrary that it’s hard to know what is what.

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Kim April 17, 2009 at 7:05 pm

Who doesn’t love blogging about books? :) And talking about grammar, so good!

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Kim April 20, 2009 at 10:49 pm

I have a friend reading Spunk & Bite right now, and it looks excellent. I’m going to borrow it when he’s done, along with the most recent Best of Creative Nonfiction.

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