Tuesday, April 21, 2009
In a recent article, Geoffrey K. Pullum (one of the authors of the recently published rants against Strunk & White's The Elements of Style. Pullum brings up several points, many of which are 'correct' but often they are weak and smack of envy. For example, Pullum takes issue with 'Omit needless words' one of Strunk's famous dictums. Pullum claims that the student who understands the command doesn't need it. Strunk & White, however, go on to tell you that you need to practise, to edit, to get rid of words to understand which words are needless. He also seems offended by the advice to 'Use the active voice'. I don't know what he disputes because Strunk & White understood that the passive is appropriate in certain situations, but they argue that it is overused by politicians and abusers of jargon - similar rules have been proposed by grammarians and others in favour of clarity from Quiller Couch to Orwell to Barzun. Pullum argues that Strunk & White contradict themselves, and they do. Again, White notes elsewhere that he is not a linguist, nor is he a grammarian, but he gets the basics right. E.B. White was more than just the author of Charlotte's Web he was one of the most prominent American essayists of the 20th century. Pullum? Not quite as great. I think that might be where the envy steps in.
Another thing, Pullum's central assertion that 'Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.' contains an ambiguous 'it' which implies that the influence of the book, rather than the book's content, degraded students' grasp of grammar. But, of course, Pullum knows this, so it must have been intentional. Though, I don't know what 'it' means if the 'it' was intentional because I don't understand how a reputation can degrade knowledge of grammar.
As a final point, Strunk & White do not claim to provide a complete grammar, they state, "The Elements of Style does not pretend to survey the whole field. Rather it propose to give in brief space the principal requirements of plain English style. It concentrates on fundamentals: the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated." (Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, 3rd ed, xii) Do they claim to be the final authority on grammar? No. Is it their fault that most people don't have the endurance for a full-on grammar text? No. Pullum's text retails for £130 or so, and contains 1860 pages - more than your average person can probably deal with. If Pullum put together a concise guide, as concise as Strunk & White, I'd be happy. Huddleston and Pullum's Student's Introduction To English Grammar is 320 pages long. I'd be happy to read it, but I am quite certain your average businessperson or policy wonk couldn't give two hoots.
(I haven't checked this to ensure that I did not do horrific abuse to English. I am hopeful that my first draft was sufficient.)