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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 Textbooks and manuals continue to present outdated information and erroneous advice.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?

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:09 PM | | Comments (43)
        

Comments

A comment on Strunk and White sent to me on Twitter: "You have to really understand it to use it, but if you understand it you don't need it--ha ha!"

"He is, in the main right".

No, he isn't. Use your journalistic skills to perform some rudimentary research, and you'll discover several blog posts (amid a lot of others that shout "hooray!", I admit), demonstrating that Pullum is not right, at all.

If you believe Fark.com posts rank among the "ill-informed and subliterate," I invite you to read the posts at such bastions of insight and erudition as YouTube and 4chan. You might find that, in comparison to Fark, they are more aligned with your levels of education and experience.

Wow, the Baltimore Sun will hire any egotistical blowhard that walks in of the street to write an article.

What a bunch of idiotic rambling. And you actually get paid to write this crap?

Yeah, I read the comments at fark.com sometimes. They're pretty much the same as nearly every other forum on the internet, full of people who think they're smarter than everyone else, especially those who disagree with them.

Ill-informed and subliterate is largely accurate, despite the inevitable farkers' claims to the contrary.

This is such a common theme these days. Old bow tie wearing intellectual bashes a website that is probably steamrolling his advertising dollars.

Keep up the good work, though! Articles about english and grammar will save the newspaper industry, I swear.

Always a treat when the sophisticates show up with the ad hominem arguments.

So you bash Fark because they were critical of your articles in the past? They are going to have a hayday with this one...

I just read your article on Fark.com, and while they can be bad at times, it's nothing compared to youtube comments.

Yes, quite a treat. Much like FARK. I use that website, for better or worse.

I am all for attempting to salvage what is left of our mother tongue. Hell, I even like good journalism. I'm reasonably certain, however, that overwrought forays into priggish pedantry are about as useful as teats are to a mackerel.

Nice tie.

i are smrt. yeah.

i right big words n stuff. yeah.

lyk:

"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 stuns some of its devotees.* "

Stuns? Shouldn't that be "stun" the singular because "devotees" is plural and "will" establishes "stun" in the future tense i.e. I will find a new career. OR I will offer people fries with their meal.

Please return to your office/cubicle/box and clear it out. Forget you were ever a "writer" and never pick up a pencil unless it's to A) draw a pretty pretty pictures [see I broke a similar rule for the sake of humor] or B).... there is no B). Your "writing" is too boring for hyperbole so please find a new career. Preferably one where literacy isn't considered a skill.

Alexander Woollcott, you ain't.

JEM: I should hope not. I believe he's dead.

Kind of you, Perceptor, to point out the typo. It has been fixed.

Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum is a whiner that will never hold a candle to Strunk and White. Tell your Nancy man friend to grow a set, and quit his snivelling.

4856 links in (as of this writing) to this boring article from Fark.com and all you had to do was mention the site in a foot note. You sly web-traffic generating devil you.

JEM: With respect, this is not the sort of custom I am seeking.

Attacking Fark.com is like poking at stick at a rabid dog. Enjoy that.

Duh! somebody is a girly-man wif a sore bumbum

watta doosh

I read Fark and post stupid, illiterate comments 'cuz it's fun. Likewise, I am humored by the insult, so I thank everyone involved for the good time.

The idea that illiterates flock to one site or another is silly. It is a fact that they are everywhere, including Fark.

But of course, if anything solves problems in our education system better than active participation, it's a snooty critique. Good job, sir. You obviously pull your own weight in this collapsing society--it is the hardworking folk who can't type well who are ruining it all.

That should be a fair sampling of farkish comments.

I apologize for characterizing them as "ill-informed and subliterate." They are evidently ill-informed, adolescent and subliterate.

There doesn't appear to be any pressing need for me to approve any more of them for publication on this site.

You might want to look a little deeper than Farkers' often-deliberate pose of questionable literacy and/or sanity. Yeah, we've got our idiots; every village does. But I've also had some of the most insightful discussions of my years online there. We're a hostile, cynical, and often way-out bunch, yes. But a fair number of my fellow Farkers (I don't claim anything for myseslf) are quite a bit smarter than the average bear. We're equal-opportunity loudmouths. We respect people who can mount a valid defense of their ideas, and have nothing but contempt for whiners and blowhards. We milk sacred cows for lulz, we're rude, crude, and irreverent, and more than willing to put on a show for someone who expects us to act like poo-throwing apes. I mean, c'mon, our mascot is a squirrel with big nuts. We don't care if we make a bad first impression, or second or third impression for that matter. We're not a bunch of erudite, stuffy English professors.

However, I would prefer the company of my fellow Farkers to that of any number of English professors. The conversation would be, by and large, more intelligent,and MUCH more interesting.

JEM: This is the last one under the wire. Look at the previous comments and see how much you can credit this one about the farkish intelligence and insight.

"They are evidenly ill-informed, adolescent and subliterate."

wut r u talkin bout, dood?

Also, you misspelled "evidently," Pop-n-Fresh. Before you get up on a high horse, you'd be well advised to make sure it isn't a three-legged one.

So I did. It's fixed. Good of you to point it out.

I understand you aren't allowing any more comments concerning this subject to be posted. This is your corporate blogsite, and that is your prerogative. I do think it a bit unreasonable to insult people who have no previous quarrel with you and then decide they shouldn't be able to respond on your site. In fact, if you were truly interested in demonstrating your point, you would be allowing Farkers to make your point for you. Unceremoniously insulting people and then walking away presents an image of intellectual cowardice. Some of us Farkers have PhD's too, and we historically recognize this as a sign of inferior discourse management.

JEM: Professor Chase, you have made a polite and reasonable argument, and you deserve a polite and reasonable response.

First, as you point out, as the writer of a blog that moderates comments, I have discretion over what gets posted, and anyone who comments can expect that discretion to be exercised. There are plenty of opportunities to post elsewere at sites that do not moderate comments.

Second, let me clarify the point I originally made. Professor Pullum was pointing out uncritical adoration of Strunk and White. As a consequence, he discovered a torrent of childish name-calling and ad hominem abuse on fark.com, which apparently indulges that level of discourse. He saw that as further support of his original point. My post described his findings.

Third, the responses here confirmed his findings. Your comment is the first not to resort to childish name-calling and ad hominem abuse. I cut off comments because it seemed to me that what had come in was a representative sampling, and I didn't care to subject my readers to more of the same. (In fact, there is more of the same queued up behind yours.)

Finally, I operate this blog for grown-up readers. Yours is the first grown-up response from the farkists, and that is why I am letting it through. If there are further grown-up responses, I will approve them as well. But I am not going to waste my readers' time with junk comments. I appreciate that you consider this to be inferior discourse management, but my readers do not.

Good sir, your grammar is atrocious. I have read a great deal of badly-written articles, both scholarly and otherwise (yours being far from scholarly), and yours is by far the worst. The only saving grace of your article is the delicious ironing found within, as you single-handedly reveal your childlike grasp of the very subject you are reviewing.

JEM: I'm letting this one in so my readers can savor the delicious ironing.

"He is, in the main right."

Now, I could be wrong (punctuation will be the death of me", but isn't this comma rather misplaced? I think, that splitting the verb from the object, shouldn't generally, be, done? Meh--they're only, commas,!

Hi, from, Fark,.,

JEM: Just so. It's fixed. Thank you for pointing it out.

First, if FARK is your idea of "ill-informed and subliterate comments" you are in for a shocker the day you actually spend a little time on the internet. Try the comments at any local newspaper's website for starters.

Second, poking fun at FARK is like trying to make a clown feel bad by telling him that he dresses funny.

Seriously, the whole POINT of FARK is to throw sanity to the wind and have a good time. Being literate and well-informed on FARK is on par with wearing a tuxedo to a demolition derby.

Whenever I attempt delicious ironing, I always end up burning my tongue.

Thank you for the good work, Mr. McIntyre.

Professor McIntyre,

Thank you for intervening, the comments were starting to go beyond tedious. Yesterday I was beginning to think that the paper had finally gone under and that this was how we were going to find out.

"JEM: I'm letting this one in so my readers can savor the delicious ironing."

Well played sir!

Something to think about... some of your readers ARE Farkers, which is how your article hit their pages to begin with.

Third, the responses here confirmed his findings. Your pcomment [sic] is the first not to resort to childish name-calling and ad hominem abuse.

Did you really expect anything different? I'll be generous and assume that you don't really appreciate the lack of manners you showed with your comment, or understand that the replies you've been receiving are consistent with protocol.

No, really.

What you did was known as a "troll." A troll is an outrageous statement intended to get a lot of people riled up and responding. Trolls are responded to very harshly when they are found on Fark (or most any bulletin board) as a form of punishment and to discourage any further such behavior. People who find witty ways to skewer a troll earn style points - you will probably disagree, but I found many of the responses here quite amusing.

But that's because you deserve this. You do. Because real grown-ups ought to know that you can't call other people nasty names without some return fire.

Next time, don't be a troll, mm-kay?

Hi. It's me again. I wanted to thank you for admitting and then correcting the folly I sarcastically pointed out. The bit about "Trolling" that Jeff so graciously pointed out is true. It's also true that you have Farker readers.

However, you stated that the comments up to a certain point had all been childish. This is untrue. No one called you names or criticized how you conducted business until you opened that door. What followed was a flood of mostly humorous, if crude, comments whose overall purpose you sorely missed. That purpose was to point out that your initial assumption that Fark is the place to go for "ill-informed and subliterate comments" was grossly debased and uncalled for.

I would also like to point out that the majority of those comments you posted weren't kind so maybe you should think about what kind of readers you do have. Those that were kind seemed solicited as they couldn't have been timed better.

One last thing, I'm guessing that you got your start in pulp form. That is, you originally wrote to an audience that couldn't respond so quickly. Maybe you should realize that this new medium is less forgiving to writers who pontificate on matters they don't wholly understand. It's not for the sake of humor solely but to give immediate criticism rather it is positive or negative.

Sorry if you felt attacked but one should be entertained while being informed.

Against my better judgement, I popped over to fark.com. I was neither entertained nor informed.

Thanks for posting my response Mr. McIntyre. You asked me (via email) if I wanted to argue that public discourse would be served by letting in more such comments. I would merely point out that even Prof. Pullum (in a post you linked to and thus want us to read) apparently enjoyed making a "girlfriend/penis" joke at a Farker's expense. This came soon after he claimed that only the "pig" enjoys rolling around in the mud.

Fark styles itself much like a late-night house party, with some zaniness and craziness. It doesn't pretend to be more than it is. It is certainly not for everyone, but there are plenty of intelligent professional people who enjoy the occasional "late-night party" as well. Most of the actual "discussion" takes place in an inner area open only to paid members - "TotalFark Discussion." Other valuable lessons on rhetoric and presentation can be had from participating on all aspects of the site.

Ultimately, I'm willing to bet Prof. Pullum took his own "girlfriend/penis" joke about as seriously as most Farkers take their site's comments. But as is often the case in life, drawing attention to yourself by insulting someone else is generally not going to bring out the best of responses.I can assure you that there are large areas of the Internet (such as Youtube and 4chan) where the commentary and argument makes Fark look like an academic conference.

In any case, best wishes for your blogsite.

Hmmm... Fark links to such sites as this, yet Ms. Lee didn't find it informative. Maybe she's trying to tell you something Mr. McIntyre. I myself found the article to be informative even if it was a little insulting.

Also, the entertaining part actually demands that the reader has a fundamental understaning of humor and is intelligent enough to get pop culture references. If you refuse to think outside the box then you are confined to the box and then you only know what's force fed to you.

Perceptor, I think you hit the nail on the head. People are always telling me that I have no sense of humor.

Laura Lee, I'm not sure...do you think ..then you are confined to the box and then you only know what's force fed to you. is a foie gras reference?

Bucky, at this very moment I am experiencing a gagging sensation not unlike having a tube stuffed down the gullet.

Look, a blog with reasoned discourse doesn't mean it's always reasoned discourse. There should be enough intellectual honesty to acknowledge that. Among many other options you can certainly a: throw the baby out with the bathwater, or b: let all comments in.

Guess what, throwing all comments in (the bathwater) reflects on the problems of our society as a whole. Is it worth your time to filter them otherwise unless they are wholly inappropriate (aka spam)? I doubt it.

Don't blame all of fark for bad or grossly ad hominem comments or you will miss the good and the interesting. As much as you hate the ad hominem ones, they also make things more entertaining and provide an intellectual break between boring reasoned discourse. It never hurts to have someone call you a faggot where you can retort that you are indeed, not a bundle of sticks or a cigarette for a good laugh.

Somethingawful.com and it's forum literally relies on this, and it makes things highly entertaining. I'm not suggesting you start covering Britney or Amy Winehouse, but attacking an internet community is like hitting a hornet's nest with your fist.

another farker.

My comments are sometimes intellectual and at other times grossly stupid. So what? Do you think even Barack Obama dares to ever discuss things that are not wholly intellectual or say words such as "like" and "stuff"?

I have read the article and have read every comment posted on this site. I have to agree with most ever Farker in here. When you made those references to their website you brought this on yourself. I actually have their website on my yahoo page so that way every time I sign in I can read their articles. I have to say that I do not agree with either you or Ms. Lee. I do get entertained by some of the posts and I enjoy the bantering that goes on between all Farkers. They are not stupid nor are they any of the rude things you said they were. Some of them are actually PHD's and pretty much all of them are intelligent. Everyone in the world needs a place where they can go and read whatever they like and say what they feel about any given article or topic. I do not think that you or anyone else should say rude things about them simply because what they said or how they said it was not in accordance with how you would respond. In my opinion ( and I AM allowed to have one) it shows just how little you think of most everyone in the world that you would say rude things about people who post on a particular site. And I am sure you will have something very rude to say about me but I do not much care. I just could not read all of this and keep my comment to myself. I like Fark.com and I think you judged them unfairly and I am not the kind of person who can sit back and ignore it. But if you would like to prevent their comments in the future then LEAVE THEM ALONE. Because if you continue to say nasty things about them they will continue what they have alrady done.

I go to Fark.com for the interesting and amusing news stories linked there. The few times I've read forum posts, I had the impression that everyone was just trying to make funny comments. Grammar is sloppy and punctuation is scattered like pellets from a shotgun shell, but it appears that this is all part of the fun. I really don't think you can judge farkers' literacy by what appears to be a conscious decision to avoid rules of grammar.

If anyone wants a Strunk-style book that's actually based on existing evidence of good usage (as collected by the folks at Merriam-Webster), see Strunk & Cowan, _The Elements of Style Revised_. Googling will find it instantly. If you don't like it, send me an email for double your money back.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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