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.
Most people who poke around in The Elements of Style learn soon enough that the point of its rules isn't the enforcement of grammatical punctilios. In the authors' hands a rule serves as a marker, a reminder of how to make your sentences and paragraphs more appealing and understandable, in deference to the reader. And that's the way it is throughout the book. The critics find the rules antiquated, unnecessary, or an impediment to free expression--but mostly distasteful because bossy.
One grammarian disputes their insistence on the "serial comma" (the comma inserted after the next-to-last term in a series--red, white, and blue rather than red, white and blue.) Strunk and White say you shouldn't start a sentence with "However" to mean "Nevertheless" or "But," a prohibition that Pullum finds particularly infuriating. And he really blows his stack over the distinction they draw between "that" and "which"--that introduces a restrictive clause, which a nonrestrictive. This, he says, is merely a "copyeditor's old bugaboo" that contradicts centuries of English usage and has, worse, injected crippling language neuroses into a "nation of educated people" who are left "anxious and insecure" as a result.
We should be so lucky! If this nation of educated people were suddenly crippled with insecurity about how they use words, entire newsmagazines would collapse, cable TV studios would fall dark, and the great billowing blogosphere would deflate to a hundredth of its present size and we'd all be much happier. Besides, Strunk and White's crotchets, if that's what they are, aren't merely arbitrary. They share a common purpose--and a moral purpose at that. A paragraph that respects the distinction between that and which goes down much more smoothly than one in which pronouns are used interchangeably. Misusing However for Nevertheless at the start of a sentence is liable to wrong-foot a reader and draw him up short: He can't be sure, till he's knee-deep in the sentence, whether the word means "But" or "In whatever way . . ." (However you may interpret the rules of syntax, this is a good one to follow rather than However, you may interpret the rules of syntax as you see fit.)
As for the serial comma, without it a reader might again lose his footing: His favorite breakfast foods were fluffy pancakes, Jimmy Dean sausage and ham and eggs. Did Jimmy Dean make the ham, too? A serial comma would put the confusion to rest: His favorite breakfast foods were fluffy pancakes, Jimmy Dean sausage and ham, and eggs.
Strunk and White want to persuade word-slingers--that's all of us, at one time or another--that a smooth piece of writing, or rather a smooth piece of reading, is made from dozens of such seemingly picky considerations. Always their motivation is fellow feeling: "The reader," White wrote, "[is] in serious trouble most of the time, floundering in a swamp, and . . . it [is] the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get the reader up on dry ground." Making rules, assembling hints, placing markers, is one way to drive the point home to the writer who, in asking to be read, has dared to put his reader in such a pickle.
This isn't "bossiness." It's not even grammar, really: It's etiquette, and etiquette, properly understood, is a branch of morality. Pullum and many of his fellow critics suffer from a double-bind common to a relativistic age. They refuse to tolerate a person who they think might be intolerant; it is their judgment that judgmentalism should be condemned. But in their unbudgeable disdain for other people's certainty, they're just as bossy as they believe Strunk and White to be.
Everybody draws a line here or there, makes distinctions between good and bad, rules one thing or another in or out of court. Only recently has it been thought polite for people to pretend they don't do this. It's astonishing, when you think about it, that The Elements of Style has survived so long, making distinctions, mounting defenses, and daring to say what's good for us. t
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.