It ain't the Pentateuch
Readers of Language Log are unsurprised that Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum holds a low opinion of the Strunk and White Elements of Style. But the current article in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which he smites “the little book” hip and thigh on the occasion of its 50th anniversary will stun some of its devotees.*
He is, in the main, right. I own a copy of “the little book” that I acquired as a senior in high school 40 years ago, to which I have a sentimental attachment, though I have not consulted it in decades.** It embodies the plain style which E.B. White and the other nonfiction writers of The New Yorker burnished. But I was aware even then that other styles were operational — it was during senior year at Fleming County High School that I also discovered H.L. Mencken’s glorious excesses.
At some point an expanded fourth edition fell into my hands, and it is less impressive. For one thing, it endorses the hopefully bugaboo, a point not in the first edition.
Actually, the book on its own terms, as Professor Pullum suggests, is relatively harmless. Much of the material from Professor Strunk’s original book is what one would expect from a basic stylebook — a preference for the Oxford comma, choices in the formation of the possessive, and similar decisions. And Mr. White’s own writing is as graceful as always in expressing principles of economy and clarity.
Professor Pullum’s quarrel is with the bibliolators who have made “the little book” a sacred text, a hazard I identified in a previous post. No book on usage ought to be swallowed whole.
It does seem a little hard for him to train his full artillery on Professor Strunk and Mr. White because we appear to be infested with scores of writing teachers who imagine that any sentence with a form of to be in it is a passive construction. I’m not sure that the author(s) of the Gospel of Mark should be held fully accountable for snake-handling.
Unfortunately, the teaching of writing does not seem to pay much attention to the principles of English grammar; and when it does, it often appears to rely on bad information, superstition and outright ignorance. Textbooks and manuals continue to present outdated information and erroneous advice.
So if you have held on to your old copy of Strunk and White, give it a pat on its birthday tomorrow. But it’s best if you keep your distance from it otherwise.
* Professor Pullum has already had a little fun with ill-informed and subliterate comments on fark.com, which is apparently where one goes for that sort of thing.
** See, Professor Pullum, I used which to introduce a restrictive clause. Is all forgiven?