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Friday, April 19, 2013

50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice | A thoughtful critique of The Elements of Style

Wow! What an excellent critique Geoffrey K. Pullum writes in this column, for the Chronicle of Higher Education, about The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.

Pullum begins by emphasizing he will not be celebrating "the 50th anniversary of the publication of a little book that is loved and admired throughout American academe."

And then he goes on to explain why:

The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.
That's just the introduction. He provides many examples, some in clearly explained detail. I encourage you to read Pullum's column ... and thoughtfully consider his critique. 

I have long had The Elements of Style on my bookshelf. Heck, I even got a hardback illustrated edition of it for Christmas in 2005. Pullum acknowledges some value in some of its advice, and so do I. But it has not been my preferred reference on grammar, word usage, and style for decades. In my blog, I occasionally note some of my preferred writing guides and provide my own advice. I will continue to do so. Stay tuned!

Pullum's concluding paragraphs:
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.
So I won't be spending the month of April toasting 50 years of the overopinionated and underinformed little book that put so many people in this unhappy state of grammatical angst. I've spent too much of my scholarly life studying English grammar in a serious way. English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don't-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can't even tell when they've broken their own misbegotten rules.
Pullum is head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh and co-author (with Rodney Huddleston) of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

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Pullum's article is featured today, April 19, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.

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