I’ve started a small firestorm with my post, Grammar and Punctuation Rules – Learn ‘em; Forget ‘em. Benjamin Hunting who blogs at BenjaminHunting.com, pointed, in his comment on my post, to an article at The Chronicle of Higher Education called 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.
There author Geoffrey K. Pullum notes that today is the 50th anniversary of the classic The Elements of Style. But he’s not celebrating.
Instead Pullum takes on the little book that has helped so many write clearly by first calling the authors “…grammatical incompetents.” He goes on to say that, “Strunk had very little analytical understanding of syntax, White even less.”
What confuses me is apparently Pullum thinks both authors were fine writers, or so he says. His complaint I gather, is what he considers “harmless,” and “vapid” advice. He then takes on Strunk and White’s dislike of overuse of the passive voice.
The whole point of what I consider an excellent book is, in my opinion, to reduce what for many of us are incomprehensible and arcane rules of grammar to easy to use guidelines.
Sure there is a place for the passive voice, but for new writers it’s awfully easy to slip into overusing it. That’s what the book is saying I think. Not that all passive voice writing is bad.
Pullum further complains when authors say “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.”
Pullum than states “(The motivation of this mysterious decree remains unclear to me.)”
He then continues with his criticism, “And then, in the very next sentence, comes a negative passive clause containing three adjectives.”
Sigh. The reason to use nouns and verbs is clear to me when taken in context; they tend to make the writing more interesting. The fact that Strunk and White immediately use a negative passive clause with three adjectives simply demonstrates they are writing guidelines and urging interesting, clear writing, not obsessing about rules. Obviously they are capable of using complex grammar and longish sentences when it helps make their point.
The article goes on… and on with criticism after criticism.
Pullum’s technical analysis may, in fact, be correct. I find it tiresome and unhelpful. But then I’m not a grammarian by any stretch of the imagination. I just don’t have the mind-set for it.