The Magazine

'Elements' at 50

It's an etiquette book, not a collection of inflexible rules.

May 18, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 33 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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William Strunk and E. B. White's Elements of Style turned 50 last month, and the most interesting thing about the anniversary, which came and went with a smattering of notices and a chinpull here and there, was what it revealed about the book's reputation. Half a century into its reign as the world's most popular grammar book, Elements is getting mixed reviews.

Maybe "World's Most Popular Grammar Book" sounds like a middling honor, like "World's Handsomest Hockey Player." But since its publication in 1959 Elements has sold nearly 10 million copies, which is pretty impressive indeed, even if several million of those were bought by college freshmen under compulsion. On the evidence the book remains a great sentimental favorite with the language-loving laity. Among those who examine words for a living, however--the clerics of the language game, the linguists and grammarians--the book is in bad odor. Some of them even consider it an active hindrance to knowledge, for the same reason a real-estate mogul would disdain "Monopoly" or professional hitmen take offense at the Godfather movies: It may look fun, but it gives everybody the wrong idea.

"50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice" was the headline in the Chronicle of Higher Education, over a bilious essay by Geoffrey K. Pullum, a party-pooping linguist at the University of Edinburgh and, perhaps not coincidentally, the coauthor of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, which has not sold 10 million copies. The New York Times followed Pullum's article a few days later with a survey of language experts, posted on one of the 46,379 blogs the newspaper includes in its website. The experts were unanimous in their disdain. The titles they assigned to their little squibs gives the flavor: "A Disservice to All," "We've Moved On," "I'm Moving On," and "Rules Are Meant to be Broken."

Strunk and White, Pullum noted in the Chronicle, "won't be hurt by these critical remarks. They are long dead." And lucky for them. Pullum wasted no time in hoisting their poor limp carcasses to the stocks and pelting them with old pieces of fruit. Both Strunk, who wrote the first edition of the book in 1918, and White, who revised it into the form we know today, were "grammatical incompetents," Pullum wrote. While a good writer otherwise--author, after all, of Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and many lovely essays--White had even less "analytical understanding of syntax" than his coauthor. Their "sheer ignorance," moreover, is compounded by their "bossiness." It's one of Pullum's favorite imprecations, bossiness. And bossiness is at the root of his hostility.

He appears to score early, when he disputes Strunk and White's Rule 10: "Use the active voice." Pullum casts the rule in the negative--Don't use the passive voice--and rebuts it by noting that the passive voice can be quite useful and natural-sounding. He points out that the authors offer four examples of the kinds of sentences you should avoid: For example, "There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground." But most of Strunk and White's examples (including that one) aren't in the passive voice at all! "The bias against the passive," writes a horrified Pullum, "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."

It looks like a pretty good gotcha, and it would be proof of cluelessness--if true. But when you glance through Rule 10 you quickly see that Pullum has misread the section. Strunk and White clearly don't intend their four examples to illustrate the passive voice. They're meant instead to be instances of the kind of limp writing that the active voice can invigorate. If you scrub a sentence of "perfunctory expressions" like there is and reorganize it around a transitive verb, good things happen: "There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground" becomes the much more efficient and immediate "Dead leaves covered the ground." And even then Strunk and White go out of their way to say Rule 10 doesn't forbid the passive voice. The passive voice, they say, is often handy and frequently unavoidable, as Pullum himself says in blaming them for saying what they don't say.