Monday, 2 March 2015

S&W stupidity savaged again

Professor Geoffrey Pullum, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), has attacked Strunk & White's iconic The Elements of Style before (50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice). Now, in a vigorous reprise at Language Log, Bad advice on being a good writer, he summarises the central errors in "Strunk's dreadful little book of drivel".

The LL post has a link to Pullum's excellent paper The Land of the Free and The Elements of Style (English Today 102, vol. 26, no. 2, June 2010, 34-44) which goes into evidenced detail as to what's wrong with the advice in Strunk & White ("William Strunk and E. B. White have a vice-like grip on educated Americans’ views about grammar and usage. Yet almost everything they say on that topic is wrong").

Apart from citing examples from literature predating Strunk (the original 1918 edition was a booklet written minus White), Pullum furthermore offers methods, such as sampling Project Gutenberg, by which readers can verify for themselves the reality of the usages S&W lay down their diktats about. Topics include:
  • Verb agreement: the claim that "None" always takes a singular verb (Pullum: "None of us are perfect is given as an example of incorrect grammar; None of us is perfect is claimed to be the correction. The arrogance here is breathtaking. None of us are perfect is a line from literature. It is uttered by Canon Chasuble in the second act of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)".
  • Pronoun case: S&W advocate nominative constructs such as The culprit ... was he (Pullum: "it would have sounded like an ridiculous affectation 1979 when White wrote the section, and even 60 years before that, when White was Strunk’s student at Cornell").
  • Connective however: S&W say “Avoid starting a sentence with however when the meaning is nevertheless" (Pullum: "the text of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), published four years before Strunk was born ... contains 19 occurrences of however that are followed by a comma, and every single one begins its clause. That is not because Lewis Carroll was wrong about English; it is because Strunk and White are wrong about English").
  • Singular they: Pullum: "The long history of Elements should not be forgotten in connection with its disapprobation of singular they: when Strunk was writing “Use he with all the above words,” women still didn’t have the vote in America. But times have changed, and it is surely unconscionable to be dragging purportedly sex-neutral he into the 21st century. That is what Elements is still stubbornly recommending").
  • Split infinitives: Strunk (1920 edition) says "the construction is in disfavor and is avoided by nearly all careful writers" (Pullum: "Strunk is ... wrong about the disfavor and the usage of careful writers. George O. Curme had already made this clear by amassing a large collection from literary works - see Curme 1914, and also Curme 1930, 458–467, esp. 461–465)").
  • Nouns as verbs: S&W: "All are suspect". (Pullum: "Grumbling about noun-to-verb conversions is a staple of prescriptivist discourse, but the instances objected to are entirely arbitrary. Prescriptivists froth and fume about talk of hosting, gifting, dialoguing, contacting, and perhaps scheduling, but they never seem to object to talk of booking a room, tabling a motion, or remaindering a book").
It's very worth reading, not least for the references cited. It refers, for instance, to Thomas Lounsbury's astonishingly sensible The Standard of Usage in English (1908, Internet Archive standardusagein01loungoog), a compilation of a series of articles on usage in Harper's Magazine. It's extremely fresh and pertinent, covering topics such as the perpetual whinge that English is declining, and the ridiculous claims by self-appointed pundits that usages universal in the works of acclaimed writers are wrong. Lounsbury says of the articles:
Though each of them is in one sense entirely independent of the others, all of them have for their common aim the maintenance of the doctrine that the best, and indeed the only proper, usage is the usage of the best, and that any rules or injunctions not based upon the practice of the best speakers and writers neither require nor deserve attention, no matter how loudly they are proclaimed or how generally taught.
While I think this does have slight provisos - for instance, classic literature is skewed toward formal usage - it nevertheless is a generally sound policy, and one that's easily employed when now we have searchable access to a vast corpus of texts. Lounsbury gives the example of the use of "some" (in the sense of "about") ...
Take, for illustration, the adverbial use of some in the sense of 'about,' seen in such an expression as "some ten years,'' and in coimtless similar ones. This usage goes back to the earliest period of the language. It is not merely colloquial; it is literary. It is safe to say — and any one can verify the assertion for himself — that there is not a classic author in our speech who has not employed it, and in many instances employed it frequently. Yet a usage which is supported by the authority of the best writers from the tenth to the twentieth century has often been stigmatized as improper by men who seem unaware that in so doing they are simply proclaiming their ignorance of good usage. Here, therefore, is a locution absolutely correct which has frequently been made the subject of unintelligent attack. 
... and this equally applies to modern 'zombie rules' such as the idea that it's wrong to begin a sentence with "But": one of many grammatical beliefs that bear zero relation to educated usage.

Addendum: a sidetrack on the "But" issue. I only recently realised that Project Gutenberg gives the option to list by random title...
... so that if you go to the above link, you get a new random listing every time you refresh the page. It's an interesting exercise to do this, and then search the first English prose result for initial "But" (use your browser search function for ". But", without the quotes) to see if the author uses it. A very quick exercise in this:
  • Account of a Voyage of Discovery, by Basil Hall ... 17 examples
  • Mrs. Tree's Will, by Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards ... 41 examples
  • The Present State of Virginia, by Hugh Jones ... 11 examples
  • The Vital Message, by Arthur Conan Doyle ... 24 examples
  • The Evolution of an Empire: A Brief Historical Sketch of Germany, by Parmele ... 13 examples
  • The Coming of Coal, by Robert W. Bruere ... 49 examples
  • Sir Thomas More, or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society, by Southey ... 67 examples
  • The Bountiful Lady, by Thomas Cobb ... 57 examples
  • The Posthumous Works of Thomas De Quincey, Vol. 2, by Thomas De Quincey ... "more than 100" examples
  • The Young Engineers in Arizona; or, Laying Tracks on the Man-killer Quicksand ... 17 examples
  • Narrative of the Circumnavigation of the Globe by the Austrian Frigate Novara, by Karl Ritter von Scherzer ... 55 examples
  • Deductive Logic, by St. George William Joseph Stock ... 92 examples
  • Paris and the Parisians in 1835 (Vol. 1), by Frances Milton Trollope ... "more than 100" examples
  • The Girl Scouts in Beechwood Forest, by Margaret Vandercook ... 30 examples
  • The House from Nowhere, by Arthur G. Stangland ... 10 examples
  • Psmith in the City, by P. G. Wodehouse ... 83 examples
  • Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen ... 92 hits
  • Punch, Or The London Charivari, Volume 101, July 11, 1891 by Various ... 9 examples
  • The Crock of Gold, by James Stephens ... 24 examples
  • A Yankee from the West: A Novel, by Opie Percival Read ... "more than 100" examples
20 hits isn't a large sample, but when they all indicate the same, it's enough to form a starting hypothesis that all writers in Project Gutenberg's scope (out-of-copyright works) start sentences with "But". It's bizarre - given the repeated debunkings, and this sheer weight of evidence - that anyone still believes, and furthermore teaches, the fictional rule against doing so.

- Ray


  1. Thanks for this, what fun!

    I never liked that book. Couldn’t get the simple answers I wanted out of it. Going by this article, I guess I wasn’t going to have much luck with the complex ones either.

  2. I suppose it shows the flexibility of English that so much bad or conflicting advice doesn't cut off communication. We can argue about what is "correct" but even unproven declarations of bad rules don't stop us from yammering on. Go English.

  3. "the flexibility of English" ... and its sheer resilience and toughness, when many of these bogus rules got a solid foothold in the educational system for over a century, yet the majority of writers manage to unlearn them.