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April 11, 2009 8:53 AM   Subscribe

For the last 50 years, grammar and style have been learned from The Elements of Style. That's not necessarily a good thing.
posted by jacquilynne (117 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
Just a note, you'll have to take a couple of clicks to get through to the actual mp3 of that radio program in the first link, but I didn't want to direct link to the mp3 and have it start playing on people, so that page was the only one that made sense.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:55 AM on April 11, 2009


And Hitler was not necessarily a nice man, yes.
posted by cortex at 8:59 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Pullum article, accurate as it may be, overlooks the vital fact that the book has much more correct information than incorrect or invalid information. This is a basic fallacy!
posted by LSK at 9:01 AM on April 11, 2009


Pullum, sir, your name seems a base exhortation to complete the equally base instinct aroused in myself by the receipt of your churlish, uncharitable, and painfully wrong article! *fumbles for his dueling pistol*

Your lack of respect for tradition will be noted when I find for you a suitable grave. Come forth with your second; I shall have my satisfaction!
posted by adipocere at 9:03 AM on April 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


Mr. Pullum's piece has been written with the conviction of someone who is clearly in the pocket of the passive voice lobby!
posted by Kirklander at 9:03 AM on April 11, 2009 [18 favorites]


Even the truly silly advice, like "Do not inject opinion," doesn't really do harm. (No force on earth can prevent undergraduates from injecting opinion.)
Heh, I like that article in the last link. I myself prefer Raymond Chapman, "A Short Way to Better English".
posted by yoHighness at 9:04 AM on April 11, 2009


Yo Dawg, dis where I learnt my elements of style.
posted by mannequito at 9:05 AM on April 11, 2009


And Hitler was not necessarily a nice man, yes.

[Chorus:]
Hitler was a sensitive man [x4]

He went to art school when he was younger
He wanted to be a painter
Hitler was a vegetarian
He was also a non-smoker

[Chorus]

He hired gay and handicapped officers
He was concerned about overpopulation
If Hitler were alive today
He’d listen to The Cure, The Smiths, and Depeche Mode

[Chorus]
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:05 AM on April 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


So I won't be spending the month of April toasting 50 years of the overopinionated and underinformed little book that put so many people in this unhappy state of grammatical angst. I've spent too much of my scholarly life studying English grammar in a serious way.

Pompous twit.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:05 AM on April 11, 2009


tl;dr. Needs editing for brevity.
posted by Nelson at 9:07 AM on April 11, 2009


I don't share the author's concern, mostly because I don't know anyone who ever fully read, much less absorbed, Elements of Style. You bought it because it was on the curriculum, tried not to put too many "was (past tense verb)" phrases in your paper, done. Then it sat on your shelf untouched till you tossed or sold it.

You learn how to write by reading lots of authors and absorbing little bits of their styles, (or deciding you don't ever want to write like them because you hate their styles) and then if you actually want to be an author, you hammer out your own style by actually finishing books or articles. Much as you learn how to speak by speaking, and how to play instruments by playing.
posted by emjaybee at 9:11 AM on April 11, 2009 [13 favorites]


Recent FPP on the Elements of Style: Omit Needless Words.
posted by ericb at 9:11 AM on April 11, 2009


Style -- sure. Grammar -- not so much.
posted by RavinDave at 9:12 AM on April 11, 2009


Pullum has been banging on this drum for ages, but it never gets old for me. This is his best piece on the subject so far. I'm tired of seeing people chastising themselves and other people over the breaking of imaginary rules.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 9:14 AM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


After about a fifth of this I stopped caring.

Actually, that's not accurate.

About a fifth of the way through this, I gave up on the hope that reading the rest would make me start caring.
posted by aubilenon at 9:22 AM on April 11, 2009


i hate strunk & white's.
posted by msconduct at 9:23 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've never seen an intelligent, well-founded and not-full-of-holes ("people apply the admonition against passive voice too strictly, therefore it's bad advice"; "GoodAuthor_N broke Rule_X, so Rule_X is invalid", etc.) criticism of The Elements of Style. Pullum's is more of the same.

There's far more bad than good. What's "bad," is often interpreted that way by somebody who read the rule and not its accompanying explanation and equivocations. Even with the bad, it's better than what else is out there. And finally, it's a great place to start but it's not Gospel, and the fact that people foolishly treat it as such doesn't imply a problem with the book.
posted by cribcage at 9:23 AM on April 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


There's far more bad than good.

Ha. Okay then.
posted by cribcage at 9:25 AM on April 11, 2009


Pullum writes, "The authors won't be hurt by these critical remarks. They are long dead."

Yes, and of course, that's all the more reason to heap piles of calumny on them. More power to you, dear sir.
posted by blucevalo at 9:32 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Pullum article, accurate as it may be, overlooks the vital fact that the book has much more correct information than incorrect or invalid information. This is a basic fallacy!

You're missing the point.

Pullum's argument is not about the book's efficacy; rather, it's that the stipulation in Elements is totally at variance not just with modern conversational English but also with literary usage.

That is, the idea of "correct" grammar for Strunk and White is that which conforms to their relative, ideologically-based idea of what proper English should be. What Strunk and White have done, Pullum might say, is define "correctness" as a narrow, self-authenticating upper-class, literate English. This is helpful, maybe, if you want to write essays for people that fawn over this version of English.

However, it's only "correct," mostly, insofar as the basic "platitudes," as Pullum calls them. You can see that both literary texts (Wilde, Stoker) and popular texts of the time (Twain, Montgomery) didn't abide by these rules, yet they are still well respected works of literature.

See how I just used "however" at the beginning of the sentence and you still understood me just fine? Strunk and White emphasize prescriptive "correctness" over descriptive understanding, because their correctness is something like literate, educated, upper-class Northeastern American English. Where would you find yourself if suddenly the "correct" style of English became Dirty South slang?
posted by hpliferaft at 9:39 AM on April 11, 2009 [14 favorites]


I think it should be remembered that Pullum grew up in that part of the world gloriously unaffected by either Funk & Strife, or indeed any widely esteemed grammar book (Fowler's doesn't come close). That a good part of the English-speaking world seems able to form coherent and vigorous sentences without solecism or crassness should argue against its necessity - or at least counter a procrustean interpretation.
posted by Sova at 9:46 AM on April 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


While Elements may be useless, even laughable, as a linguistic study tool for anyone who's serious about the topic, it's not bad as a way to help ungifted or pretentious freshmen not produce unreadable drivel, and this may be its real purpose. It seems to me to be a way to get people who have never thought enough about writing to actually think about it in a way that will help them avoid the worst excesses right off the bat. Encouraging people who really don't know how to write to take a machete to their sentences until they are succinct and grammatically simple is no bad thing. If they later decide to take the craft of writing seriously, they can build up from there.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:47 AM on April 11, 2009 [8 favorites]


As an English geek, but I appreciated this. Whenever I write, I still feel the weight of the ridiculous rules I was taught about proper writing style and grammar throughout high school and college. While emjaybee is right about the books uselessness, its ubiquitous usage stifles creativity in language.

I spent a lot of time in college helping my friends rewrite their papers to help with flow and clarity. They all owned Elements of Style, and it did nothing but scare them away from properly expressing themselves. Lots of smart kids who could speak clearly in complicated sentences froze up when they had to write, as if the written word was mine field.
posted by es_de_bah at 9:47 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Jeez, I woulda thought this a got a better reception here on Metafilter. The guy is right, you know.

For any of us who have been crucified on the Elements of Style, I can see where the author's frustration is coming from. If you are going to be anally raped because of "The Rules", the damn rules better not be arbitrary, contradictory ones written by people with few qualifications for doing so, and only accepted as canon because we have been too collectively lazy to develop anything better.

Please, let us not confuse grammatical precision with pompous twittery. As my mother used to say, as she dragged coolly on a Camel, "Xoebe, it's not enough that you are understood, you must not be misunderstood."
posted by Xoebe at 9:52 AM on April 11, 2009 [10 favorites]


Also, consider the context in which Strunk, for his part, wrote. There was a fashion for overdecorated writing at the end of the 19th century, and the damage it did persisted well into the 20th. It's possible that Elements, in its initial form, could be distilled down to "cut that shit out."
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:54 AM on April 11, 2009 [10 favorites]


Where would you find yourself if suddenly the "correct" style of English became Dirty South slang?

The United States of Funtacular!
posted by Bookhouse at 9:59 AM on April 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


Pullum seems to miss the point of Strunk & White. His argument is similar to a computer science professor claiming that The Dummies Guide to Windows XP is the final word on the subject.
posted by Dr. Twist at 9:59 AM on April 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


I have been in writing and publishing for a very long time and have yet to be anally raped because of Strunk & White. Usually, the rapist arrives bearing the AP stylebook and, on occasion, the Chicago Manual of Style.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:00 AM on April 11, 2009 [10 favorites]


OK, where's the library at, Asshole?
posted by applemeat at 10:01 AM on April 11, 2009 [8 favorites]


Do we need another round of Strunk and White bashing so soon after this post, which is still open for comments?
posted by Crabby Appleton at 10:01 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


(I recently re-read TEOS, and came away understanding that the correct way to form the possessive on nouns that end with "s" is to add "'s"--even though this looks strange: ["The Ross's dog." "The bus's tires's tread."] This is still correct, right?)
posted by applemeat at 10:02 AM on April 11, 2009


er, is not
posted by Dr. Twist at 10:04 AM on April 11, 2009


Fer Chrissakes, gov, the book is called "The Elements of Style," not "The Elements of Grammar." It is not surprising, I guess, that a Sassenach grammarian at the University of Edinburgh would disapprove of a mid-twentieth century book offering advice on the composition of American English.

Iin 30 years or so of trying to help young American lawyers write comprehensible English, however, I have found S & W's maxims more than serviceable. The vice of the justly excoriated "legalese" is its enmerdement in the passive voice. The use of "however" to splice unrelated sentences is another endemic vice of bad legal writing, which construction always requires extirpation in the interest of clarity. Mr. Pullum's criticisms of "active not passive" and "don't start a sentence with 'however'" are academic grousing. None of us are above the occasional violation of S & W advice (he said archly.) But the continuing contribution to clearer English prose of "Elements" can only be denied in Scotland and then only by comparison to Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker.
posted by rdone at 10:05 AM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


After, all, the book is called Elements of Style, not Elements of Haggis, or Elements of Wit, or Elements of Vampires.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:12 AM on April 11, 2009


However incorrect the book is, hopefully, people will remember the fact that it does contain some good advice, too.
posted by interrobang at 10:19 AM on April 11, 2009


Nor Elements of Elements
posted by Rumple at 10:21 AM on April 11, 2009


I had a professor who would mark any paper down AN ENTIRE LETTER GRADE if you used any passive sentences or any form of the verb "to be." Do you have any idea how difficult that is? How counterintuitive and unnatural it is to have no constructions like that in a 5, 10 or 25 page paper?

The Professor was the Torquemada and the Pol Pot of Grammar.
posted by MasonDixon at 10:31 AM on April 11, 2009


Here are my main problems with The Elements of Style.

* It's written by people who seemingly have barely any knowledge of grammar, stylistics or rhetoric.
* It's profoundly silly yet taken seriously by people who'll invoke its rules without a modicum of thought.
* It's pablum.
* It's precepts are so far removed from language that the book itself makes little attempt to follow them.
* It's a hopelessly contradictory.
* It gives people the mistaken impression that there are clear-cut rules for style. There aren't. Languages are immensely complicated. They are ceaselessly evolving, vary by geography and are full of weirdness and oddity. The pretense that there are simple, clear-cut rules for writing well is pig-headed and damages people's comprehension of what language is.
posted by Kattullus at 10:32 AM on April 11, 2009 [9 favorites]


That Elements of Style is pretty fusty and dated in style itself I always found amusing, even in high school. It was never touted as the ultimate grammatical reference to me, though.

Teaching ungifted or beginning writers to actually think about their point and describe it succinctly is a useful guiding principle to written communication. (And one that I wish my colleagues had absorbed somewhere along the line.) Writers who deviate from "the rules" aren't automatically Doing It Wrong -- experimentation and variation in language can be profoundly insightful -- but if you're trying to invite someone to speak at a conference or propose your thesis, don't make them laboriously decipher what you're going on about.

For any of us who have been crucified on the Elements of Style, I can see where the author's frustration is coming from. If you are going to be anally raped because of "The Rules",

I believe Messrs. Strunk and White have an opinion on the effectiveness of this sort of hyperbole?
posted by desuetude at 10:39 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's written by people who seemingly have barely any knowledge of grammar, stylistics or rhetoric.

This comment is typical of criticism against the book. And so I think it's a great litmus test, if you happen to be reading this thread and you're unfamiliar with the debate. Flip open a random page (here's the 1918 edition), read a bit—and whether or not you agree with the particular advice, decide for yourself whether its author seems to have "barely any knowledge of grammar, stylistics or rhetoric."

For any of us who have been crucified on the Elements of Style... If you are going to be anally raped because of "The Rules"...

Can you elaborate? Like, did you write some brilliant middle-school essay that was graded F because you misused a serial comma? Because again, there's a distinction between "People use this book to justify dumb stuff," and "This book is dumb." You're using verbs that imply the former to argue the latter.
posted by cribcage at 10:45 AM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Omit needless posts.

I mean, we just did this last month, right? Do we hate it so much we need to hate it differently every 30 days? While not actually a double-post, I think it's technically a double. That & wikipedia's not exactly unknown here, anymore.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:47 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


As someone who deperately needed needs rules for improving my writing, I am very glad that Pullam wasn't one of my high school or university teachers.

My teacher gave us this book, along with a copy of Twains "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," before we read anything else. I agree that the advice was much more needed in those verbose days.
posted by FuManchu at 10:48 AM on April 11, 2009


While I've found Strunk and White very useful at times, on the whole I hate prescriptivism in grammar (thus my willingness to make up the word prescriptivism, which is very useful in the context of this conversation). I try to edit descriptively whenever possible. The primary goal of language is to communicate, so as long as you're being clear, and not muddying the waters of English by using words or phrases that mean one thing to mean something else, we'll be cool.
posted by Caduceus at 10:49 AM on April 11, 2009


I had a professor who would mark any paper down AN ENTIRE LETTER GRADE if you used any passive sentences or any form of the verb "to be."

E-Primers have gotten a foothold in academia? I thought for sure they were all constrained to asylums for the insane by now.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:51 AM on April 11, 2009


Elements of style were disregarded to the maximum extent there of.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:54 AM on April 11, 2009


Ah, now I know (or rather strongly suspect) why my fellow TA (an American) was telling her students not to use passive-voice! I never understood that particular prejudice myself. Stylistically, it's usually best if the subject of your sentence is the most important thing in the sentence, but if the subject is the actee, not the actor, then it should be a passive sentence, e.g., "the instructor was rightfully ridiculed mercilessly by his students."

I should say that I have never used Strunk and White, both because I am an interloping foreigner to your fine country and because the OED is the first and best English reference for all of my needs. But I'm glad I learned my English grammar in an introduction to linguistics course. I don't remember how to correctly diagram a sentence (it's been a while), but everytime I wonder whether something is grammatically correct, I just read it aloud and ask myself if it sounds good. As a native English speaker, I have internalised the grammar, and as someone familiar with prestige and educated styles I can imitate them. Occasionally, I look up how to use commas, but then I think that really they are like caesuras in music, and I use them as I feel I need to.

I do think that grammar should be taught to anglophones, but it should be taught like we teach science, i.e. how language works, not how language should be. Learning how language works (like that sentences want a noun and a verb) is like learning a natural system, but you can better manipulate that system with a better awareness of how and why it works the way it does.
posted by jb at 10:55 AM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Some of the arguments in the Pullum article take Strunk and White out of context. For example, he picks on "Do not inject opinion," but doesn't include Strunk and White's explanation:
"Unless there is a good reason for its being their, do not inject opinion into a piece of writing... To air one's views gratuitously, however, is to imply that the demand for them is brisk."
I think that's a pretty good point.
posted by knguyen at 10:58 AM on April 11, 2009


To be honest, I don't know why people are fussing about style when it comes to teaching undergraduate writing. In my experience, argument is the weakest aspect of writing for many young people (though at 32 maybe I'm not so young, but I still need improvement here). Their sentences are fine, it's the overall structure (and road-mapping within that structure) which needs work.

About opinion, the best advice I ever had was from a high school history teacher. He said, don't write "I think", because all you need to do is write what you think to tell your reader your opinion. Sticking in the extraneous "I think" is just a way to soften your point, to make it easier to wriggle out of it, to turn it from a thesis or hypothesis into a mere opinion.
posted by jb at 11:05 AM on April 11, 2009


Some of the arguments in the Pullum article take Strunk and White out of context. For example, he picks on "Do not inject opinion," but doesn't include Strunk and White's explanation:
"Unless there is a good reason for its being their, do not inject opinion into a piece of writing... To air one's views gratuitously, however, is to imply that the demand for them is brisk."
I think that's a pretty good point.
Yet another self-contradictory rule from Strunk & White. Their book is little but opinion without a good reason.
posted by Flunkie at 11:07 AM on April 11, 2009


George_Spiggott: "22While Elements may be useless, even laughable, as a linguistic study tool for anyone who's serious about the topic, it's not bad as a way to help ungifted or pretentious freshmen not produce unreadable drivel, and this may be its real purpose. It seems to me to be a way to get people who have never thought enough about writing to actually think about it in a way that will help them avoid the worst excesses right off the bat. Encouraging people who really don't know how to write to take a machete to their sentences until they are succinct and grammatically simple is no bad thing. If they later decide to take the craft of writing seriously, they can build up from there."

No, it IS a bad way to teach freshmen (or anybody else) how to produce decent writing. That's the whole point of the article. Pullum argues that Strunk and White is outdated, prescriptive, and full of contradictions. The rationales for its severe rules are either not grounded in any sort of logical reasoning, are relics of another time (a period of English that is very different from the one we live in today), or are inconsistent and just plain wrong. You wouldn't recommend a Fundamentals of Math book to someone if all the numbers in it didn't add up.

Take this example from the article:
"Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs," they insist. (The motivation of this mysterious decree remains unclear to me.)

And then, in the very next sentence, comes a negative passive clause containing three adjectives: "The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place."

That's actually not just three strikes, it's four, because in addition to contravening "positive form" and "active voice" and "nouns and verbs," it has a relative clause ("that can pull") removed from what it belongs with (the adjective), which violates another edict: "Keep related words together."
How is one supposed to make sense of these Strunk and White rules? Why the hell is "always use active voice" in a STYLE manual? Why are 3/4ths of the supporting data completely irrelevant? And why this stupid, prescriptive rule in the first place?

Teachers can do less lazy than teaching English writing by Strunk and White.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:15 AM on April 11, 2009


thus my willingness to make up the word prescriptivism

Um... what?
posted by hippybear at 11:16 AM on April 11, 2009


Pullum's writing suffers from too much use of the passive tense. ;)
posted by caddis at 11:16 AM on April 11, 2009


My Advanced Grammar and Compostion teacher from 25 years ago, himself very passionate about language, a man who taught us about it from phonemes, morphemes and Wittgenstein, told us that Elements of Style could, for the most part, be ignored.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:57 AM on April 11, 2009


This article has been read and found to be fantastically correct, however... the commenter's personal opinion will not be included, as the need for it is not brisk.
posted by Dumsnill at 12:02 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Criticizing The Elements of Style is relevant as long as there are still people who believe that all of its rules should be followed. And I've certainly run into a lot of them, especially among amateur writing circles.

These people are unable to think critically about grammar and style, and in the long run, it probably hurts their writing. But that's what they were taught in school: don't think; just follow the rules in this book.

Pullum comes across as a bit irrationally angry with The Elements of Style, but he's a linguist, and interested in language. Posts on major misconceptions about language in the media or in education are a large part of Language Log. And his posts on it are pretty useful if you ever do get into an argument with someone who has decided that such-and-such is "incorrect" because Strunk & White says so.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:02 PM on April 11, 2009


I've recently been scoring some regents' exams for the university. Some of the exams, which ask students of early college-level English classes to write a very short essay on one of a handful of assigned topics, are heartrendingly bad. Nearly every one would have been improved by a thorough digestion of Strunk & White. When they say obvious things, it is always because these are not obvious things to a new writer.

Once a writer becomes skillful enough that he can begin to selectively ignore aspects of The Elements of Style, he'll probably be experienced enough to know what those things are.
posted by JHarris at 12:05 PM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


JHarris: Nearly every one would have been improved by a thorough digestion of Strunk & White.

One of the many, many things that baffles me about people who defend The Elements of Style is the notion that it's the only option for beginning writers. To give but one example Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage is a much, much better book. I don't use it much but even a cursory glance is enough to see that it is on a different level of quality than Strunk-White.
posted by Kattullus at 12:27 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Lots of smart kids who could speak clearly in complicated sentences froze up when they had to write, as if the written word was mine field.

The written word is a mine field! When people have to write essays, the first thing they're going to do is resort to overly complex sentences and needlessly complex language that they think is "formal." Meanwhile, they will completely lose track of what they're trying to say. If you aren't told "don't use the passive voice," chance are you're probably going to overuse it, obscuring your points and arguments while making it hard on the readers.

I suppose it's a mistake to say that something is "correct" because "Strunk & White says so." However, use of Strunk & White as a writing guide is no worse than telling a public speaker not to mumble or slur his speech.

These people are unable to think critically about grammar and style, and in the long run, it probably hurts their writing. But that's what they were taught in school: don't think; just follow the rules in this book.

As JHarris points out, those who don't aren't aware of those "rules" turn out to be considerable worse as writers.
posted by deanc at 12:43 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Pullum has been banging on this drum for ages, but it never gets old for me. This is his best piece on the subject so far.

The next one will no doubt be better than this one. The one after that will continue the trend. If he lives long enough, Pullum may write the perfect criticism of The Elements of Style. Will anyone notice?


I had a professor who would mark any paper down AN ENTIRE LETTER GRADE if you used any passive sentences or any form of the verb "to be." Do you have any idea how difficult that is? How counterintuitive and unnatural it is to have no constructions like that in a 5, 10 or 25 page paper?

Ask that of a technical writer, and he or she will probably laugh. They write entire books with those constraints
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:43 PM on April 11, 2009


However incorrect the book is, hopefully, people will remember the fact that it does contain some good advice, too.

Well, sure it does. But are the beginning writers who read this book going to be able to tell which is bad and which is good? Why don't we just start them off with consistently good advice?
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:47 PM on April 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


I've recently been scoring some regents' exams for the university. Some of the exams, which ask students of early college-level English classes to write a very short essay on one of a handful of assigned topics, are heartrendingly bad. Nearly every one would have been improved by a thorough digestion of Strunk & White. When they say obvious things, it is always because these are not obvious things to a new writer.

Once a writer becomes skillful enough that he can begin to selectively ignore aspects of The Elements of Style, he'll probably be experienced enough to know what those things are.


Yes, this is true. You need to learn the rules before you learn why you should break them. I don't know why that is, but you can always see the difference between someone aware of the orthodoxy yet bending it, and someone not aware of structural rules at all.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:49 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


The passive voice is strongly discouraged in historical writing. After a year of grading freshman history papers I know exactly why. The passive voice lets people who don't really understand what happened to skate through without (they think) revealing the extent of their ignorance.

'The Stamp Act had been passed to raise taxes on the colonists.' WHO passed the Stamp Act? If the writer can't remember or be bothered to state the entity who performed the action, they probably don't actually understand the significance of the fact they're regurgitating.

I gave all my students a link to Strunk and White because none of them had any clue how to write basic English sentences. If they actually understood how to write I would not have had to do that. A tool that isn't perfect is better than no tool at all.
posted by winna at 12:56 PM on April 11, 2009


You need to learn the rules before you

Yes, but these are not rules, they are personal preferences the author pulled out of his ass. "Until you learn to respect the stuff I pull out of my ass, you will never learn how to pull stuff out of your own ass. Certainly not in a classy way."
posted by Dumsnill at 12:58 PM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


'The Stamp Act had been passed to raise taxes on the colonists.' WHO passed the Stamp Act? If the writer can't remember or be bothered to state the entity who performed the action, they probably don't actually understand the significance of the fact they're regurgitating.
Had I written that sentence, I would be shocked and disappointed to find out that my professor assumed that I did so because I didn't know who passed it.
I gave all my students a link to Strunk and White because none of them had any clue how to write basic English sentences. If they actually understood how to write I would not have had to do that. A tool that isn't perfect is better than no tool at all.
The example sentence that you gave is perfectly valid and meaningful English. If you don't recognize it as such, that's not a failure on the part of the student who wrote it.
posted by Flunkie at 1:04 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Much of the ire towards Strunk & White is based on the idea that S&W serves to strangle genius in its infancy and force those trying to push the limits of language into a straitjacket. The problem is that most writers aren't geniuses and most writing isn't (and shouldn't be) about pushing language into new frontiers, especially when you're a high school English student learning to write essays.

So professional linguists and literary writers are going to look with disdain on S&W, and probably hated it when they were in high school. They should get over it. If more people who write letters to the editors and more bloggers grew up with a copy of S&W, we'd be living in a much more readable society.
posted by deanc at 1:08 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yes, but these are not rules, they are personal preferences the author pulled out of his ass. "Until you learn to respect the stuff I pull out of my ass, you will never learn how to pull stuff out of your own ass. Certainly not in a classy way."

This might be true if the ass products weren't standardized materials taught rigorously in school after school for decades. I'm not saying I agree with them, but they are "rules" in the sense of their ubiquitousness.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:13 PM on April 11, 2009


Much of the ire towards Strunk & White is based on the idea that S&W serves to strangle genius in its infancy and force those trying to push the limits of language into a straitjacket.
Did you read the article?

The ire therein is that many of the "rules" fall into one of two categories:

(1) Effectively meaningless platitudes;

(2) Rules so fundamentally misbegotten that S&W contradict them themselves, sometimes even within a sentence or two of proclaiming them.

I might have missed it, but I didn't see anything in the article about genius being strangled.
posted by Flunkie at 1:14 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


A lot of the success of Strunk & White is simply that it is short, confident and simple. The sort-of consensus solution is to write a replacement, one that

1) doesn't make rules, but gives suggestions of useful improvements
2) reflects different voices and contexts
3) has lots of carefully picked typical bad constructions from collegiate and high school papers, and
4) is up to date with the more informal usages on the Internet, and reflects different contexts.

Is there one? If not, Pullum or somebody here should write it.
posted by msalt at 1:28 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs," they insist. (The motivation of this mysterious decree remains unclear to me.)

As an Eleventh Commandment, it's pretty damned useless. As a temporary step during the revision process, it can be very helpful. My students (among other folks) frequently fall into the habit of substituting adjectives and adverbs for anything resembling, you know, substantive content ("This is an exceptionally interesting poem full of beautiful thoughts and intriguing words"). So I tell them to yank out all the adjectives and adverbs during revisions, see if they still have meaningful sentences once they've done that, and then put the adjs and advs back in.

On preview: Had I written that sentence, I would be shocked and disappointed to find out that my professor assumed that I did so because I didn't know who passed it.

This depends on the context, doesn't it? What the instructor "understands" is a useful fiction: I tell my students to assume that their audience has read the text and knows how to define, say, an Italian sonnet, whereas other instructors want their students to write to an uninformed reader and still others to a reader who has only a basic understanding of the material. Depending on the essay's purpose, there's generally an imagined audience other than the professor. (It's true that not all instructors make that clear, though.)
posted by thomas j wise at 1:28 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't see Strunk & White claiming that using negative constructions is always wrong, or that no one may ever use adjectives or adverbs. They are rules of thumb intended to provide some guidance around the typical beginner's mistakes.

I read a page of a beginner's story where almost every noun had two adjectives in front of it: a dark, scary forest; a big white house; a small pale girl. "Cut adverbs and adjectives" isn't advice that stands on its own; it arises within the context of dozens of college freshman who keep repeating the same annoying writing habits.

The problem is that people who are too dumb to think for themselves start treating it as advice that's meant to stand on its own, divorced from context, to label every incidence of passive voice or every adverb as an insult against good writing.
posted by Jeanne at 1:37 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


About opinion, the best advice I ever had was from a high school history teacher. He said, don't write "I think", because all you need to do is write what you think to tell your reader your opinion. Sticking in the extraneous "I think" is just a way to soften your point, to make it easier to wriggle out of it, to turn it from a thesis or hypothesis into a mere opinion.

I'm so bad about this. I make things worse when I feel the need to hedge even more and end up with "I tend to think," since it might be that I don't always think that way, or I'm not completely convinced but I'm still comfortable advocating the position. The really terrible thing about it is that it developed in direct response to commenting on the internet. I just got sick of hyper-dramatic whackos whining about the difference between opinion and reality, certainty and speculation, and figured the redundancy was worth it for cutting off those attacks. But that's not important to me anymore so I've been trying to cut down, but still end up using it too much.

I also use the word "that" excessively, like in the sentence above that begins "The really terrible thing," where it's unnecessary (but I kept it in just to make this point).

Most of this is about internet comments which I don't edit much. I'm try to be much more diligent with formal writing.

The only advice I've adopted from Elements of Style is "avoid unnecessary words," though I still fail often enough. I never really liked their opinions on grammar, but I'm not bitter about it or anything.
posted by effwerd at 1:46 PM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Had I written that sentence, I would be shocked and disappointed to find out that my professor assumed that I did so because I didn't know who passed it.

If it were one sentence in a paragraph that correctly assigns motivation to the British government and the colonists, it is possible it would be overlooked. If every other sentence is written in passive voice, it is completely obvious when the person is waffling to avoid exposing their lack of research. Generalities and passive voice are the foundation of any bad freshman history paper.

Even in graduate level history courses my professors corrected my papers if I used passive voice.
posted by winna at 1:46 PM on April 11, 2009


Well, then, that explains why you have attached undeserved implications to it.
posted by Flunkie at 1:51 PM on April 11, 2009


I mean, we just did this last month, right? Do we hate it so much we need to hate it differently every 30 days? While not actually a double-post, I think it's technically a double.

Yep, sorry. I didn't search sufficiently before I posted this. I thought the article was interesting, and while looking around for more info on Elements of Style and the fact that it's apparently controversial, I came across the radio show, which I also thought was interesting, and then I posted them without doing my due diligence.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:55 PM on April 11, 2009


I was talking about the use of passive voice in the context of historical papers, particularly those of freshman taking the required history classes. They're not undeserved implications when I saw it over and over again.

Passive voice is not acceptable in historical essays. I gave one reason that I saw for that restriction, which is mirrored in many of the recommendations/guidelines I linked there.
posted by winna at 2:04 PM on April 11, 2009


I don't care what you say, Norway WAS INVADED in April 1940. Sure, you could say that them thar Germans went ahead and invaded Norway in April 1940, but from a domestic Norwegian perspective that just seems forced.
posted by Dumsnill at 2:11 PM on April 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


Passive voice is not acceptable in historical essays. I gave one reason that I saw for that restriction, which is mirrored in many of the recommendations/guidelines I linked there.

I think Pullum would argue that this is just evidence of the malign influence of S&W's advice. The fact that lots and lots of people tell you not to use the passive voice doesn't mean that it is good advice, or, indeed, that people generally regarded as good stylists actually heed that advice. Your own example and the examples given on the pages to which you link all commit the error of treating single sentences out of context. Of course if I'm answering a short-answer question that asks me "who passed the Stamp Act" it's an evasion (and one hoping for a "at least he knows something" 1/2 mark response) to write "The Stamp Act was passed in..." But within a whole paragraph there might be all sorts of good reasons to write "The Stamp Act was passed..." without any thought to hiding one's ignorance of the Stamp Act's authors (indeed, if you do a Google Scholar search on the exact phrase "the Stamp Act was passed" you get 252 hits--most of them from practicing academic historians).

I'm surprised, too, that the defenders of S&W in this thread aren't more troubled by Pullum's demonstration that no reader of S&W who didn't already know what the passive voice was would be able to discover that from their erroneous examples. If you think it "good advice" for these poor saps to avoid the passive, how does reading S&W help them when their guide doesn't even define the passive correctly?
posted by yoink at 2:52 PM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Winna's citations are good examples of why that particular shibboleth is so irritating--it seems to be espoused mainly by people who simply don't have a good grasp of fundamental concepts: "Sentences in active voice have a subject, verb, and object." Well, no, not in general. Sentences with a transitive verb may; lots and lots of perfectly well-formed sentences don't. "Sentences in passive voice have a verb and object." This is simply wrong, muddling syntax and semantics. But people have the right to be confused; it's when they're put in a position where they can affect other people when they enforce their poorly-understood, arbitrary rules that pisses people off. (I note one of winna's pages also invokes the prohibition on split infinitives, which is, if possible, even dumber.) Here's a principle I like: if a lot of people believe something that's untrue, it remains untrue, even if they belong to a class of people you're desperate to fit in with.
posted by rodii at 3:17 PM on April 11, 2009 [5 favorites]


The passive voice is strongly discouraged in historical writing. After a year of grading freshman history papers I know exactly why. The passive voice lets people who don't really understand what happened to skate through without (they think) revealing the extent of their ignorance.

'The Stamp Act had been passed to raise taxes on the colonists.' WHO passed the Stamp Act?


This problem, to the extent that it is a problem, is not due to using passive voice.

The Stamp Act had been passed by Parliament to raise taxes...." is just as passive. "The Stamp Act raised taxes on the colonists" is active but still doesn't specify who passed it. Passive or active isn't your problem here. If you want to make a rule that says "Specify agency in historical acts so your professor knows that you know who did things" then do that. Voice isn't the issue here.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 3:42 PM on April 11, 2009 [7 favorites]


Omit needless blogs.
posted by neuron at 3:53 PM on April 11, 2009


Heh. I took Geoff Pullum's "Modern English Grammar" class back when he was teaching at UC Santa Cruz. The main thing I got out of that class? Avoid Strunk and White. It seems to be a bit of an obsession for him.

He's a pretty entertaining guy though. Used to be in a rock band, apparently.
posted by Silune at 3:56 PM on April 11, 2009


Passive voice is not acceptable in historical essays.

But perfectly acceptable in actual academic history writing, including when we are trying to cover up our ignorance of an actor. The defensive Sea Wall in eastern England near the Wash was constructed in the 900s, for example, and we have no idea who did it.

The passive voice is a tool - it should be used correctly. The best way to use the passive is to draw attention to the passive object in a relationship, by making it the subject of the sentence.

To borrow Dumsnill's excellent example, the sentence "Norway WAS INVADED in April 1940" focusses on Norway. Norway is the most important thing. Had the sentence been written as "The Germans invaded Norway," you would by focussing on the Germans. Which is fine in a book about Germany, less fine in a history of Norway.

Turning to the other historical example: 'The Stamp Act had been passed to raise taxes on the colonists.' Again, this is a fine sentence to go into a paragraph which was not about who had passed the Stamp Act or why, but focussed rather on the Act itself and the reaction to it. It might be a poor choice to go into an analysis of Westminster politics in 1765, but one might use it because it offered a varied form of construction in an otherwise active voiced paragraphy.

The whole point is that the choice between passive and active voice is not about the betterness of either, but about what you want to by the grammatical SUBJECT of your sentence. Thus, after a long reminiscence about my grandmother's house, and how it smelled and how it felt, and how happy I had been there, I could end by saying, "But a freak tornado blew the house down and I was never the same again." Or I could end with "But that house was blown down by a freak tornado, and I was never the same again." The second sentence keeps the attention on the house, and its tragic fate.
posted by jb at 4:13 PM on April 11, 2009 [9 favorites]


He's a pretty entertaining guy though. Used to be in a rock band[.]

You mean: He's a pretty entertaining guy , though he used to be in a rock band.
posted by applemeat at 4:15 PM on April 11, 2009


You mean: He's a pretty entertaining guy , though he used to be in a rock band.

I dunno, "Hand Clappin, Foot Stompin, Funky-Butt... Live!" was a pretty great album title for 1966.
posted by msalt at 5:13 PM on April 11, 2009


Boy, it's refreshing to see the majority here agreeing that S&W is a useless piece of shit. That means I don't have to go to the trouble of putting together yet another of my patented fulminations.

You need to learn the rules before you learn why you should break them.


That might be true if S&W contained actual rules of English instead of 99% pure bullshit.

Also: rodii!!
posted by languagehat at 5:16 PM on April 11, 2009


active voiced paragraphy

That would be a typo, not a poor attempt at a neologism.
posted by jb at 5:56 PM on April 11, 2009


What took you so long, languagehat? This thread was custom made for you.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:58 PM on April 11, 2009


Fer Chrissakes, gov, the book is called "The Elements of Style," not "The Elements of Grammar."

I apologise for calling it a grammar book. I understand that it contains a far broader range of material. However, my point still stands: my university teachers here (England) don't recommend this or any book for learning style. The only advice I've received comes in two parts: 'find your own style', and 'be consistent'. We are still partly marked on style, but more the overall feeling of how writing is phrased and flows as a piece. No teacher would ever mark down - or even point out - split infinitives, use of passives, which/that clauses, etc etc. Discussions like these which make me thankful for such permissiveness.
posted by Sova at 6:09 PM on April 11, 2009


What took you so long, languagehat?

Mother-in-law visiting, work I'm trying to do. Damn woman almost sat on the cat; she would have killed him if he didn't have quick reflexes. Look at the chair before you lower your bulk into it, people!

I dropped by here again because I just came across this in an excellent piece on Chekhov by the long-forgotten (probably because he emigrated to Bulgaria instead of Paris or New York) Russian émigré critic Petr Bitsilli (whom Nabokov praised as the most intelligent critic of his writings in a 1943 letter):
A Chekhov character is ... an object of external influence rather than a subject, and his residual humanity consists in responding to the outside pressures with his mind and heart. This is attested to by Chekhov's language. Significantly enough, one often encounters in his works passive, third-person constructions such as "it appeared to him," "it occurred to him," and the like, instead of sentences in which a human being plays an active role, in which he or she thinks, recalls, desires, and so on.
But hey, if only Chekhov had had the benefit of S&W, he would have written better, amirite?
posted by languagehat at 6:22 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Holy crap I just finished re-reading his short stories, too. And you're right (or Bitsilli is right) about his narrative voice. The Steppe is probably one of the best short stories ever written, but a teacher wielding S&W would undoubtedly have flunked him for it.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:27 PM on April 11, 2009


Hi hat (get it?).

For those of you who seem to think Pullum is just a scold, maybe you'll appreciate his proof that the Halting Problem is unsolvable, in verse, in the style of Dr. Seuss.
posted by rodii at 6:46 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


The dogmatic following of S&W is annoying. Some people have a difficult time getting their ideas down on paper. For these people, a rule book that tells them not to puff up their writing with extraneous words can be a good thing. S&W can help a beginning writer focus on clearly expressing the ideas they are trying to convey. I know that when it helped me when I started writing essays.

After gaining some experience in writing (of which I still have very little) and finding my own voice, I came to see that it was just that: a helpful tool for a beginner. This is like learning a computer language in that I would first choose a book that introduces the basic structure and suggested best practices over a book for experts that explains why it is OK to bend or break those best practices in certain circumstances.

This thread has given me some interesting ideas. I'll try to use them when I quit screwing around and finish the paper that I'm supposed to be writing for my Philosophy class.
posted by double block and bleed at 7:50 PM on April 11, 2009


With respect to the responding to the unusually controversial status of Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" as a prescriptive, descriptive or authoritative authority for English writings and prose, in America as well as in England, and even Scotland, too, it was lengthily discussed by the posting persons that commented. However, the very interesting consensus which was achieved among some, being that the passive voice typically was generally appropriate, if not actually mandatory, for using in discussions relating to Norway and Chekov, but not the Germans, concerning which there was agreement, especially where it was related to historical writing about history. I think that, as a rule, there is now a worthwhile sense of potential, or even actual agreement to the effect that infinitives are to be freely and permissively split where typically possible because this rule is one which is often being found to be a cause of tornados and anal rape, which is to be individually and actively discouraged, I believe. In my opinion, it was very fortunate that this lively and extensive discussion was enlightening and illuminating as to the generally antinomian attitudes of MeFites towards rules and styles and especially towards the obviously deleterious impacts possibly of Strunk, and more probably of White, too, on English as she to be better being written in these days of modern time. However, understanding was not shown concerning why the use of extra words, including but not limited to adverbs, adjectives, and such were to be generally discouraged in use. In my opinion, this was hard to understand.
posted by rdone at 8:32 PM on April 11, 2009 [11 favorites]


But hey, if only Chekhov had had the benefit of S&W, he would have written better, amirite?

It's transparently plain that S&W, or any other direct, assertive style guide obviously pitched at adolescents and undergraduates isn't intended to turn almost-Chekhov into Chekhov, or Checkhov into some Uber-Chekhov. It's not intended to take someone across the cusp of earning a Nobel for literature.

It's intended to take people who have serious problems expressing any sort of idea in writing and help them make their writing... not even good. Just less miserably awful. It's intended to make reading thirty or forty or a hundred essays in a row less disheartening. It's not an accident that you keep seeing people who've actually had to read undergraduate papers, and especially undergraduate papers at profoundly not-elite institutions, pointing out that the precepts have some value.

Consider the "ban" on the passive voice. Can writers use the passive voice well? Of course. Can writers use the passive voice and end up with a sentence or paragraph superior to that using the active voice? Of course. How many undergraduate essays at nonelite institutions would be indisputably improved if they totally eschwed the passive voice, even if the problems themselves don't originate in the passive voice itself? Well over 90%.

None of which means that there aren't highly annoying people who wave a copy of Strunk and White around at skilled writers and other fully literate adults, or that such people shouldn't shot, hanged, torn into tiny pieces, and burned alive.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:15 PM on April 11, 2009 [5 favorites]


Pompous asses like Pullum should just go sit and rotate.
posted by caddis at 10:24 PM on April 11, 2009


Geoffrey K. Pullum is head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh and co-author (with Rodney Huddleston) of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language

It's not like Pullum would ever wish his own book to supplant Strunk/White, right? Right?

Anywho...I'm all for amending rule when necessary to reflect evolving usage and construction. Afterall, language is a living thing. However, this is not the same as tossing-out rules altogether. I understand there is this odd, vocal contingent who appear to be of the mind that there should be no rules whatsoever, save for the ones that they find personally convenient. Sorry, kids. You don't get to pretend speed limits don't pertain to you, either, just because they were established without your input.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:18 AM on April 12, 2009


What's wierd to me is that the defenders of S&W seem to be under the impression that it's detractors want to do away with all grammer instruction whatsoever. There are other books we might use here, no? Pullum and those who agree with him in this thread want to do away with The Elements of Style. Seems reasonable to me.
posted by dellsolace at 6:23 AM on April 12, 2009


The one time I don't preview. Shit.
posted by dellsolace at 6:24 AM on April 12, 2009


Anywho...I'm all for amending rule when necessary to reflect evolving usage and construction. Afterall, language is a living thing. However, this is not the same as tossing-out rules altogether. I understand there is this odd, vocal contingent who appear to be of the mind that there should be no rules whatsoever, save for the ones that they find personally convenient. Sorry, kids. You don't get to pretend speed limits don't pertain to you, either, just because they were established without your input.
Are you talking about the article? Or the comments in this thread? Because it's astounding to me that you might think that this was the basis of the article, or of the anti-S&W sentiment in this thread.

I'm sorry for singling out you in particular. I don't really mean to - there are a bunch of S&W defenders in this thread, not just you, who seem to be under amazingly mistaken impressions about the basis of the objections to S&W.
posted by Flunkie at 6:45 AM on April 12, 2009


It's not like Pullum would ever wish his own book to supplant Strunk/White, right? Right?

From Metafilter's Elements of Snark:

Ad hominem arguments are easy to make and spare the writer the bother of responding to the case laid out in the posted article. For example, if one of the world's most respected linguists points out the numerous deficiencies in Strunk and White, a commenter could imply that he has done so mainly to boost sales of his own book, not because Elements of Style is actually flawed.

Such arguments are have the added benefit of great versatility. If the aforementioned linguist had not himself written an introductory grammar, the careful commenter could just as easily respond "Well, if this pompous ass thinks that he could do better, let him write his own grammar!" This, too, lets the snarky commenter avoid engaging the arguments in the FPP while vigorously participating in the resultant thread.

Ad hominem attacks are highly popular and engaging to read. They are highly commended to beginning and experienced snarkers alike.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:47 AM on April 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


It's not like Pullum would ever wish his own book to supplant Strunk/White, right? Right?

Do you have any idea what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language is? It's something like 1800 pages long. Apples and tangerines: projects of entirely different type and scope and intention.

One thing it is not is thin and cheap enough to canonize and distribute like a religious pamphlet for young writers. Feature, not bug.
posted by cortex at 7:38 AM on April 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Anywho...I'm all for amending rule when necessary to reflect evolving usage and construction. Afterall, language is a living thing. However, this is not the same as tossing-out rules altogether. I understand there is this odd, vocal contingent who appear to be of the mind that there should be no rules whatsoever, save for the ones that they find personally convenient.

There are indeed rules of English. They are not, however, to be found in S&W, which is full of invented prescriptions and proscriptions (some of which, if not taken too seriously, can help beginning writers, though no more than they could be helped by far better writing guides that are not printed by the multimillion and dropped into every high school graduate's Christmas stocking). They are to be found in, say, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. But you don't need to actually consult that huge and expensive reference work unless your linguistic sense has been rotted by years of absorbing idiotic pseudo-rules, because the Cambridge Grammar (like any linguistic description) is simply a scholarly analysis of the rules that are unconsciously used by every native speaker of the language.
posted by languagehat at 7:56 AM on April 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Ah, the passive voice. I love the passive voice. Use it all the time. You try publishing a scientific article without using the passive voice. It isn't done, I tell you. Stupid MS Word wavy green lines... I turn off that damned "This sentence may be in the passive voice" notification first thing upon install. Right after that I tell it to stop automatically making hyperlinks and selecting the entire word.
posted by caution live frogs at 8:00 AM on April 12, 2009


Some other options besides using Strunk and White that seem to be useful at my university or at least that is what I've heard:
1) Having students look at each others work as often as possible (whether in workshops, the "writing center," or posts online). They can learn a lot from the prose of Joan Didion but they can also learn plenty from their classmates, especially since their classmates are writing in very similar contexts with similar constraints.
2) Working on grammar within the context of their writing. Try to understand the logic of the errors being made and work from there.
3) Being patient. First year students who can't communicate in writing as well as you want them to aren't going to change a heck of a lot within one semester, but if they are writing a lot and sharing their work with their peers a lot over the course of their 4 or so years, the growth is going to be substantial IMHO.
4) 18 year olds humans, despite the claims of many, have lots of experience, knowledge, and rhetorical strategies handy. The hard part is creating situations where those things can be unleashed and brought to bear on academic work. The other hard part is working with the student when the first attempts come out crufty.
posted by i'm being pummeled very heavily at 9:20 AM on April 12, 2009


What's wierd to me is that the defenders of S&W seem to be under the impression that it's detractors want to do away with all grammer instruction whatsoever.

That's coming from the nature of the objections.

It's hard for me to imagine an engaging style guide that doesn't offer what accomplished writers will view as vague platitudes.

As well, it's hard for me to imagine an engaging style guide that doesn't do things that it tells you not to do with some frequency. The goal of something like Strunk and White isn't interesting, engaging text, it's just text that's less likely to be hopelessly confused and intermixed chaotically with 60% useless padding. Dull as dishwater, but at least you can read it without the urge to kill rising too high.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:32 AM on April 12, 2009


pummeled wrote:
3) Being patient. First year students who can't communicate in writing as well as you want them to aren't going to change a heck of a lot within one semester, but if they are writing a lot and sharing their work with their peers a lot over the course of their 4 or so years, the growth is going to be substantial IMHO.
This is just wrong.

I was fortunate enough to take English 101 from a crusty old guy (or so I thought at the time, he was probably in his early forties) who used Strunk and White as his Bible. He made us write an essay every week, and he would bleed red ink all over it. He'd explain why in class, or in person if you asked him. My writing improved enormously in one semester. It was like a revelation to me. I'll always be grateful to him (and to Strunk and White, for that matter). (In English 102, I went on to get an A+ on my research paper. The professor kept after me to change my major to English. I took a Technical Writing course from him, and he asked to use one of my papers as an example for subsequent classes.)

The last thing students should be doing is "sharing their work with their peers". Their peers are just as ignorant and clueless as they are. The best way to learn how to write is to have someone who knows what they're doing sit down and edit your crappy essay while you watch and learn. (At least, at the English 101 level.)
posted by Crabby Appleton at 10:51 AM on April 12, 2009


You try publishing a scientific article without using the passive voice. It isn't done, I tell you.

I wish most of those scientific articles were written not without any passive voice, but with massively less of it. The ones I read used it to a truly ridiculous extent.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:53 AM on April 12, 2009


In grad school for a class in The History of the English Language, we had one of those annoying TAs that couldn't get over the S&W issues with the verb "to be". Annoying enough that I was forever going to the professor to have my grades changed because it was my opinion that the twit wasn't intelligent enough to actually read what I wrote, but was instead masturbating to a copy of SW while grading. The professor agreed with me on every occasion where I went to her and said "Seriously, WTF?".

Just to make the TA's head asplode, I wrote a 30 page paper on the verb "to be" for my term paper. It made me giggle.
posted by dejah420 at 11:12 AM on April 12, 2009


I used S&W to teach sixth graders. I also ignored a lot of their grammar advice, never taught that the book was gospel, and never graded down for style, only for truly appalling grammatical trainwrecks. I think the kids learned a lot from it.

OTOH, I have also taught graduate students, and I never used S&W there. They don't seem to understand the difference between a rule and a guideline. However, once a graduate student's writing is atrocious, I've been hard-pressed to change it, no matter what teaching strategies I tried.

In fact, I do not know any book I would use as a never-to-be-contravened rulebook of written grammar. In dealing with S&W, or any text on grammar, style or usage, my tack is: "Here's some advice from a good writer and a student of good writing. If you look at your own work and find you've gone against this advice a whole lot, look again. See if you communicate your meaning better by doing what the author suggests. If not, that's cool."

If you want to split an infiinitive, split it. If you decide to use the passive voice, use it. But be an informed user of grammar.
posted by Topkid at 6:09 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Please explain to me exactly what is "informed" about an admonition against splitting infinitives.
posted by Flunkie at 9:05 PM on April 12, 2009


The problem is that most writers aren't geniuses and most writing isn't (and shouldn't be) about pushing language into new frontiers, especially when you're a high school English student learning to write essays.

Ayup. On Metafilter, and in particular in threads like this where we delight in showing off, we tend to be a little more careful about and skilled at using language than the internet population at large, so this group poo-pooing The Elements of Style feels a little bit like Formula One drivers arguing against basic drivers' ed.

I understand that many are arguing that Strunk and White were talking bollocks, and that's fine, and may even be true. I haven't looked at the book in decades. But I do think in general, that when it comes to language, when it comes to expressing ourselves clearly and effectively, what we have been taught as 'the rules' at some point in our lives can be safely ignored when we do it consciously and for effect, rather than out of ignorance. I don't think it's necessarily prescriptivist to talk about best practices rather than rules.

Whether Strunk and White do that, I don't know.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:46 PM on April 12, 2009


Count me as supporter for S&W too - I taught 8th grade English once. It is a great tool to help guide novice writers. Yes, of course anyone who takes it as doctrine to be applied to all situations is making a mistake. But it offers great lessons to help bad writers start to think about their writing.
posted by taliaferro at 7:02 PM on April 13, 2009


you descriptive folks are certainly right it would be very bad for anybody to set down their rules for writing because that would restrict the freedom of great geniuses like myself and yourself who would otherwise not be able to express ourself in the ways that best suits my/your/our very unique point of view any restriction or suggestion that there might be some general patterns or rules or advice or general principles to follow especially in freshman composition classes would be an example of fascism which is you know uncool we should just let the words flow out however they want to or as one of my students said to me this semester in todays society we write like we talk and I thought yeah that's a pretty good way of looking at it because all of these rules are silly and presciptivism is bad except when linguists prescribe that there shouldnt be any and Im getting sick of teaching english anyways and yes i said yes i will yes
posted by wheat at 12:07 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


wheat: I'm glad you got that off your chest. Now, try to understand that this isn't a "prescriptive vs. descriptive" argument. Pullum's point is that S&W offer contradictory, incoherent and incorrect advice. Again: given that they demonstrably do not understand what a passive construction is how can anyone who reads their guide recognize what it is that they are supposed to avoid? In other words, even if you are a most prescriptive of prescriptivists, S&W offers advice that, in many cases, is either useless or incorrect.
posted by yoink at 12:52 PM on April 16, 2009


I had no problem following and parsing your comment, wheat.

No one in this thread is arguing that S&W is "restrict[ing] the freedom of great geniuses" and neither is Geoff Pullum. Pullum's main point is, in fact, that neither Strunk nor White followed their own dictates, because they're idiotic precepts.
posted by Kattullus at 12:54 PM on April 16, 2009


To be fair, yoink, I'm not a huge fan of S&W. I don't have a copy and I haven't had one since I was an undergraduate. And I'm not the most prescriptive of prescriptivists. There are a lot of outmoded rules, many based on a misguided effort to give English a larding of Latin. But there's a lot of sound advice, even in the 1918 edition, that the kids who show up in my college classes, despite years of "education," still don't understand. I'm talking about basic things: joining independent clauses together, making pronouns and antecedents agree, etc. I don't think a style guide is standing in the way of these students learning how to write. I think the problem is more systemic than that.

To give Pullman a fair shot, I'd have to read his own grammar and see if I think it is any more effective than others I've used. (To my credit, I checked the campus library already, but they don't have a copy.) So far, he just seems irrationally angry about an ancient style guide and seems willing to dismiss it entirely based on a few well-known deficiencies.
posted by wheat at 6:44 PM on April 16, 2009


Happy Birthday, Strunk and White! is a post on the New York Times' Room for Debate Blog which has five people opining on S&W, Geoff Pullum, Patricia O'Connor of grammarphobia.com, Ben Yagoda, English professor at University of Delaware, Mignon Fogarty of the Grammar Girl podcast and our very own languagehat.
posted by Kattullus at 12:03 PM on April 25, 2009


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