What’s wrong with Strunk and White?

The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, is certainly a popular book, but its popularity is richly undeserved. There, I said it. A recent article by Stanford’s Asya Pereltsvaig in the Languages of the World blog explains why the popularity of Strunk and White is undeserved.

Pereltsvaig praises Geoffrey Pullum’s conclusion that The Elements of Style has “significantly degraded” American students’ understanding of English grammar. In her blog post, she tackles several defenders of Strunk and White who of course object to Pullum’s views. Here are some excerpts, but follow the link to read her complete comments in detail:

Some of their suggestions about these issues are completely made up out of thin air and others are based on a mistaken idea that English grammar can and should be understood on the basis of Latin grammar. Consider, for instance, Strunk & White’s advice that statements should be “put in positive form”. Obviously, negation imparts meanings and therefore it cannot always be avoided in favor of rephrasing the sentence “in positive form”.

The assumption that the English grammar works (or should work) just as the Latin grammar did is also wrong-headed. Although English and Latin are distantly related, English grammar (and Germanic grammar, more generally) is quite different from that of Latin, which was a far more synthetic language than English is. One example of such ill-considered advice that resulted from molding the English grammar to that of Latin is the prohibition against split infinitives. As discussed in my earlier posts (see here and here), in Latin, the infinitive form of the verb is marked by a suffix which is an integral part of the verb word, whereas in English, the infinitive marker to is, like other verbal markers such as auxiliaries and modals, an independent word rather than a morpheme attached to the verbal root. In Latin, inserting an adverb between the verbal root and the infinitive marker would involve splitting a word, which is impossible, whereas in English doing so involves splitting a phrase, which is perfectly fine. Even if splitting infinitives is not, strictly speaking ungrammatical, in English, is it perhaps a sign of “bad style”? That view can be adopted only if one thinks that Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Robert Burns, Daniel Defoe, Benjamin Franklin, William Wordsworth, Abraham Lincoln, George Eliot, and Henry James were all writers with “bad style”: they have all used split infinitives. (The prohibition against split infinitives became a staple of style manuals only in the 20th century.)

Another example of Strunk & White’s advice that is more harmful than helpful is their “war on passive”. Instead of defining the concept of “passive” clearly and explaining when passive structures are or are not effective, Strunk & White are “passive aggressive” about this grammatical construction, exhibiting negative attitudes and passive resistance to this very common phenomenon of the English language…A bigger problem with The Elements of Style, as Pullum points out, is that its authors do not have a good grasp as to what is or is not a “passive”: two out of three of their alleged examples of passives actually do not contain any passive.

Perektsvaig concludes with a direct quote from Pullum:

“It’s sad. Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write “however” or “than me” or “was” or “which,” but can’t tell you why. The land of the free in the grip of The Elements of Style.


Categories: Books, Linguistics, Teaching & Learning