Analytical Understanding of Syntax?

by Anne Wayman

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.

Do I need an “analytical understanding of syntax?” Do you? Tell us what you think.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

admin April 18, 2009 at 8:51 am

oh wow, some great comments here.

Celene, love the notion of academic link bait… just love it.

Dan, actually I’ve edited both magazines and newspapers and you’re absolutely right – the mistakes are sometimes horrendous – and look,

here’s Isaac, trying to teach college freshmen and women… not easy.

Ed, true also of Jazz and Blues although I doubt the early Blues musicians knew the rules they were breaking – they just knew how to express what they were feeling in wonderful music.

J, great observation… yep, just like that.

Melissa, oh dear. I guess I’m much more of a blues writer than a classical because I wouldn’t recognize which sentences in the book were called passive without being such.

Benjamin! I’m blushing… also fixed it. One of the problems with blogging is there’s no time for editing. Blogging is to formal writing like the blues are to Bach. I don’t know that I find the mistakes pointed out difficult to accept as mistakes so much as I don’t think they are important. It’s nitpicking to me. If the rewriters of the manuals or the beginning college students or the comic book writers followed the book writing would be much more readable. Readability… that’s what I really want.

Norm, haven’t had anyone use either jeremiad or gobsmacked on this blot yet – great words. Thanks. Don’t know any piece of writing where there aren’t mistakes.

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Norm Benson April 17, 2009 at 6:56 pm

Benjamin beat me to the punch on the recommendation to check out Pullum’s jeremiad. What gobsmacked me was Pullum’s statement about the passive sentence examples: “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.” I guess when it comes to S&W, “mistakes were made.” 🙂 I had no idea.

Norm Benson’s last blog post..Perhaps some other laws have been ignored too?

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Benjamin Hunting April 17, 2009 at 10:28 am

Hello Anne – thank-you for the link – it’s ‘BenjaminHunting.com’, however, without the extra i 🙂

The approach I took when reading the article was that I am not a linguist, and the gentleman who wrote the article is head of a linguistic department. He has probably forgotten more about grammar than I will ever be able to learn in my lifetime. Note that he never criticizes the writing of Strunk and White, but merely pans their inconsistent and on occasion incorrect grammatical advice, in each instance backing up his critique with examples.

In Canada, we weren’t really taught out of this book in school, so I don’t have any particular attachment to it. My girlfriend, who is American, reacted in much the same way you did to the article, however.

Given the fact that there are so many science guides and manuals from the past that bear re-working as new discoveries are made, it doesn’t surprise me that a grammar manual that is so old would contain as a many errors and omissions as this one purportedly does. I do find it interesting that the examples pointed out as mistakes by this man, who essentially has a doctorate in grammar, are so difficult for everyone to accept as mistakes.

Someone brought up classical music. I am a classically trained pianist, and in that world each teacher has their own style and ‘interpretation’ of how music should be played, including different pieces. It would seem as though Strunk and White have managed to spread their own personal preferences when it comes to grammar over a wide cohort of writers, and when this is challenged people defend it based on the fact that it is familiar. If you have always played a piece a certain way, or heard the same recording of a certain song your entire life, then the revelation that there are different and perhaps more accurate interpretations will make you uncomfortable.

Benjamin Hunting’s last blog post..My Miata Track Car

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Melissa April 17, 2009 at 10:28 am

I thought Pullum’s article made some valid points. I have no problem with the easy-to-follow advice part of the Strunk/White equation–even though they, like all good writers, stray from the rules. But I dislike it when the writers of grammar books confuse their terms. The Elements of Style says not to overuse the passive voice. That’s fine, solid advice for the new writer. But it also gives examples of “passive” sentences that aren’t actually passive. That’s confusing and misleading, and it certainly deserves to be criticized.

Melissa’s last blog post..Cricket!

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J April 17, 2009 at 10:25 am

Calls to mind the scene in “Annie Hall” when the guy is going on and on about Fellini being “a very indulgent filmmaker.”

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Ed April 17, 2009 at 10:15 am

The article is surely link-bait. Knocking Strunk and White is blasphemy for most writers. Don’t view grammar as a straight-jacket, but a comfort that provides confidence when doing something completely out of bounds – because you know your way back. Some of the best rock musicians have grounding in the classics – not because they intended to play that sort of music, but because it taught them the essentials. The same can be said for writing; S&W provides that grounding.

Ed’s last blog post..Chicago Sun-Times Files For Chapter 11

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Isaac April 17, 2009 at 9:20 am

We should look at grammar not as rules that we are forced to follow, but as tools that give us, the writers, power over our words. Grammar helps us comvey meaning. And Strunk and White were right to criticize passive voice, adjectives, and adverbs. Those things are necessary and have their places, but when overused, they confuse meaning. I teach college freshmen; I’ve seen enough of these mistakes to know what Strunk and White were doing.

Isaac’s last blog post..Grammar is Power

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Dan April 16, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Hi, Anne:

I’ve always loved The Elements of Style, ever since my first journalism teacher made us purchase it. I still have that book, something that I can’t really say about most of my other college textbooks.

I think grammar, sadly, is becoming a lost art even among writers. There’s a forum I visit often for writers who aspire to write for the comic-book industry. You’d be amazed at the script samples that people post there. Commas, especially, seem to suffer.

Dan’s last blog post..Content Writing Madness is moving to a new home

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Celine April 16, 2009 at 2:28 pm

I echo your sentiments about the article. I read it a few days ago and felt that it was probably what “link bait” looked like in the academe.

Celine’s last blog post..Content Inbreeding: Why We Should Make New Connections

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