Monday, April 13, 2009



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.

That sounds like standard-issue Chronicle of Higher Ed blunderbussery, but the author, Geoffrey K. Pullum, knows what he's talking about -- he's a linguist, and co-wrote The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language -- and the bulk of the essay is a startlingly comprehensive, point-by-point, and erudite take-down of Strunk and White.

Note for teachers (and the curious): I still think Chapter 5 of Elements, "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused," is pretty solid, and a good starting point for teaching young writers. Here the idea is that a few don'ts (as Ezra Pound would say) often can stop particularly dire barbarisms in their tracks. I usually ask my students to generate/expand a list of common grammatical mistakes THEY find annoying; when it comes to grammar, or standards of any kind, you have to love crowd-sourced criteria. (I guess you could also call it "sham democracy.")

After that, I usually like to walk through the comma (and by implication the semi-colon), who/whom, that/which, and the great homophonic misspellings -- e.g., it's/its, there/their/they're, where/we're/were, usw. In particular, the comma is terrific to teach because it actually gives students tools and strategies to build complex sentences rather than just giving them anxieties about what they CAN'T do. You can do the same thing with parallel structure and to a lesser extent semicolons, but the comma is king. I usually like to teach commas and thesis statements together.

Via Language Log, where Pullum blogs; he's been having it out with Strunk for a long, long time.

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