Strunk & White wrong, outdated, mocked

I love linguist Geoffrey Pullum's recent takedown of the tiny tyrant. The Elements of Style was published 50 years ago.
This was most unfortunate for the field of English grammar, because both authors were grammatical incompetents. Strunk had very little analytical understanding of syntax, White even less. Certainly White was a fine writer, but he was not qualified as a grammarian. Despite the post-1957 explosion of theoretical linguistics, Elements settled in as the primary vehicle through which grammar was taught to college students and presented to the general public, and the subject was stuck in the doldrums for the rest of the 20th century.
Pullum, in a similar rant on the Language Log blog, also called the cherished little chest of chestnuts
"...a horrid little compendium of unmotivated prejudices (don't use ongoing), arbitrary stipulations (don't begin a sentence with however), and fatuous advice ("Be clear"), ridiculously out of date in its positions on appropriate choices among grammatical variants, deeply suspect in its style advice and grotesquely wrong in most of the grammatical advice it gives.... One of the things that worries me about the number of Americans who seem to treasure this little piece of trash, now in its fourth edition ... is that they just don't realize how absurdly old it is — that it is pretty much not even a work of the last century, but rather reflects ideas formed in the one before that.
Problem is, unlike most languages, English is officially unregulated and largely free floating. People are awkward and defensive about English because they don't really know the rules of English grammar -- because what are they? Who are the authorities? Strunk & White's Elements of Style became a raft one could cling to, but it's obviously time for an updated little grammar book for the 21st century. Whoever writes that book will be gleefully allowing split infinitives all the way to the bank.

And this, I can't resist (from Language Log rant):

Strunk had been born in 1869. That is, he was old enough to read the news when General Custer led his men to massacre at the Little Big Horn. Strunk was a grownup with a Ph.D. when Dracula was first published. By the time White was his student and had to buy the privately published precursor of what would become Strunk & White, the professor had reached the age of 50. It was 1919.

It's no wonder Strunk's view about a phrase like everyone in the community, whether they are a member of the Association or not was that it should be "corrected" to everyone in the community, whether he is a member of the Association or not: women still didn't have the vote in America, so who would care if this sort of use of he excluded them. Prohibition was newly adopted; the Model T Ford was on sale; the Treay of Versailles was being readied for signature to formally end the First World War.

But what I'm saying about the extreme age of the outdated nonsense in Strunk & White can perhaps best be put like this: White's formative experience in Strunk's class was so long ago that the Red Sox had just won the World Series the year before.


cfp said...

I'm in the midst of a job search right now and I'm using the serial comma unrepentantly. I hate serial commas! The problem is that caution favors the most restrictive usage. Strunk and White is full of restrictions. That matters so much more to its longevity than the specifics.

In other words, you're exactly right!

cj said...

I liked these critiques, too. They may even have convinced me to stop recommending Strunk & White in my syllabus -- especially because my students are confused enough about passive voice as it is.

But I still like S&W. Now I'll admit, though, that I like it not because the advice it gives is so great, but just because it's so well written. Will Pullum write a book about grammar -- about *grammar*! -- that is such a pleasure to read that it will last for decades? As between the author who writes a memorable, engaging book and the critic who accurately points out its flaws, I know whose side I'm on.

Besides, I'm not sure how realistic it is to think that people will learn grammar by reading books about it. Five-year-olds in Paris know much more about French grammar than I can ever hope to. Better to put a good book in front of someone, regardless of what it says.