Saturday, April 11, 2009

Strunk & White: grammar morons

Thanks to Victor J. Banis I've just read a wonderful article in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which Geoffrey K. Pullum explains why William Strunk and E.B. White, authors of The Elements of Style, are grammar incompetents. Here is Pullum's response to Strunk & White's proscription of the passive voice:

What concerns me is that the bias against the passive is being retailed by a pair of authors so grammatically clueless that they don't know what is a passive construction and what isn't. 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. "At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard" is correctly identified as a passive clause, but the other three are all errors:

  • "There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground" has no sign of the passive in it anywhere.

  • "It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had" also contains nothing that is even reminiscent of the passive construction.

  • "The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired" is presumably fingered as passive because of "impaired," but that's a mistake. It's an adjective here. "Become" doesn't allow a following passive clause. (Notice, for example, that "A new edition became issued by the publishers" is not grammatical.)

I also really like his exploration of S&W's foolish notions about using the singular verb with the subject 'none':

An entirely separate kind of grammatical inaccuracy in Elements is the mismatch with readily available evidence. Simple experiments (which students could perform for themselves using downloaded classic texts from sources like show that Strunk and White preferred to base their grammar claims on intuition and prejudice rather than established literary usage.

Consider the explicit instruction: "With none, use the singular verb when the word means 'no one' or 'not one.'" Is this a rule to be trusted? Let's investigate.

  • Try searching the script of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) for "none of us." There is one example of it as a subject: "None of us are perfect" (spoken by the learned Dr. Chasuble). It has plural agreement.

  • Download and search Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). It contains no cases of "none of us" with singular-inflected verbs, but one that takes the plural ("I think that none of us were surprised when we were asked to see Mrs. Harker a little before the time of sunset").

  • Examine the text of Lucy Maud Montgomery's popular novel Anne of Avonlea (1909). There are no singular examples, but one with the plural ("None of us ever do").

It seems to me that the stipulation in Elements is totally at variance not just with modern conversational English but also with literary usage back when Strunk was teaching and White was a boy.

The article explains most of my fights with American copyeditors. Most of the ones I've had don't know a thing about grammar, and they have tin ears. We clash on just about everything, particularly verb tense. Verbs are subtle instruments.

This article filled me with glee. Read and be free!

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