Fake Grammar Experts

A favorite question here at OB is: who are the real experts? 

Most people think of grammar as an area where expertise is especially respected and organized; experts coordinate to decide the right answers and then tell the rest of us what to think.  That is certainly the impression most English teachers give us.  But in fact the "expert" grammar they most often teach was determined mainly by popularity among English teachers, not by what is most expert according to actual grammar experts.

Geoffrey Pullum says the classic Elements of Style is grammatically incompetent:

April 16 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a little book that is loved and admired throughout American academe. …  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. …

Both authors were grammatical incompetents. Strunk had very little analytical understanding of syntax, White even less. Certainly White was a fine writer, but he was not qualified as a grammarian. Despite the post-1957 explosion of theoretical linguistics, Elements settled in as the primary vehicle through which grammar was taught to college students and presented to the general public, and the subject was stuck in the doldrums for the rest of the 20th century.

Notice what I am objecting to is not the style advice in Elements, which might best be described the way The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy describes Earth: mostly harmless. Some of the recommendations are vapid, like "Be clear" (how could one disagree?). Some are tautologous, like "Do not explain too much." …

But despite the "Style" in the title, much in the book relates to grammar, and the advice on that topic does real damage. It is atrocious. Since today it provides just about all of the grammar instruction most Americans ever get, that is something of a tragedy. …

The grammatical advice proffered in Elements is so misplaced and inaccurate that counterexamples often show up in the authors' own prose on the very same page. … White not only added the anti-"which" rule to the book but also revised away the counterexamples that were present in his old professor's original text!

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. …

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.

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  • Aurini

    Tarnation! Why aren’t the kids learning Latin nowadays?

  • http://www.ciphergoth.org/ Paul Crowley

    alt.usage.english (a group whose creation is at least in part my fault) used to refer to Strunk and White as “drunken shite”…

  • http://dinhe.net/~aredridel/ Aria Stewart

    I rather love The Elements of Style. It’s not about grammar. It’s about writing. It’s not about what’s right, it’s about what’s good.

  • David

    I pasted that article into Word and found 63 grammar mistakes. Harrumph!

  • Felix

    Isn’t it expertise instead of expertize?

  • http://nebupookins.net/ Nebu Pookins

    I agree completely with Pullum’s sentiments, but I think his arguments would be more convincing if he provided much more evidence for his claim “The grammatical advice proffered in Elements is so misplaced and inaccurate that counterexamples often show up in the authors’ own prose on the very same page”. When I follow the link to the original post, I only noticed two such examples.

    @Aria Stewart: Pullum stresses that he considers White to be a “fine writer”, and that what he is “objecting to is not the style advice in Elements”, but “to grammar, and the advice on that topic does real damage”. People often cite the Element of Style as evidence that a given sentence is “wrong” (in the sense that it is ungrammatical), so in many people do use Elements as if it’s about “what’s right”. I suspect that if people mainly focus on the “writing” and “what’s good” aspect of Elements, and did not take its grammatical advice seriously, Pullum would have no complaints.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    I think this begs a wider question: why do people fabricate authorities to tell them what’s “right”, when no such authorities exist in the first place?

    The very question of what’s “correct” English is ill-conceived. There is no such thing. There is no universally recognized English language standard; English is a language that evolves. A more sensible question might be: which way of using the language will maximize the effectiveness of what you’re trying to communicate? But this is not the question people want to ask. Instead they want to ask the question: how do I cover my ass? How do I ensure that what I write cannot be objected to? If someone doubts the way I phrased something, what authority can I hit them with?

    The obsession with “what’s right” seems to me a reflection of people’s inclination towards this attitude, as summarized in Futurama:

    Priest: Great wall of prophecy, reveal to us God’s will that we may blindly obey.
    Crowd: Free us from thought and responsibility.

  • David

    Pullum offers us no alternative. If Strunk and White is out, who should we turn to for grammatical advice? And some of his critiques miss the spirit of the book. For example he writes:

    “The bill was paid by an anonymous benefactor” sounds perfectly natural.

    But applying S&W, “An anonymous benefactor paid the bill” also sounds natural (and omits two needless words). Have I turned a passive sentence into an active one? I’m honestly not sure. Pullum says S&W misdiagnosed many sentences as passive but I’m left wondering if the concept of the term hasn’t changed a bit in the last 50 years. If “there were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” isn’t passive, then what is it? “A great number of dead leaves lay on the ground,” sounds better to me: what have I changed? Pullum ranted about wrong diagnoses but didn’t give the correct ones.

  • Zac

    I love Elements of Style and learned how to write in large part from reading the book. No one has ever complained about my writing.

    To my face.

  • Douglas Knight

    denis bider,
    Another beloved authority, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, is (sometimes) quite honest about making up rules, such as the that/which rule, which he fabricates in the name of clarity.

    Pullum’s complaint seems mostly to be that readers interpreted as authoritative rules of grammar what were only intended as stylistic suggestions. While one can certainly blame the authors for the miscommunication, Pullum seems to make false claims about their intent.

  • http://delibertate.com Robert S. Porter

    Pullum offers us no alternative.

    Maybe he doesn’t there, but her certainly does on his blog. Go check out Language Log for years of advice. Additionally, it’s one of the best blogs on any subject. He recommends “the very sensible and intelligent book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams.”

  • Johannes

    David,
    Pullum recommends Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams. Language Log, where he is a co-blogger, has lots of material on Strunk & White.

  • David

    Robert and Johannes, thanks for pointing me to his blog. I think I just became a fan.

  • urubu

    @David:
    “there were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” isn’t passive, then what is it?

    Active, past progressive tense.

    “A great number of dead leaves lay on the ground,” sounds better to me: what have I changed?

    Replaced the past progressive by the simple past.

  • http://zbooks.blogspot.com Zubon

    If you read only one linguistics blog, it should probably be Language Log. The site also addresses other complaints like requests for examples. And if you want to see citations of singular “there” dating back hundreds of years…

  • Tyrrell McAllister

    I don’t understand the complaint. It’s called Elements of Style, not Elements of Grammar. The word “grammar” doesn’t appear anywhere in the text of the editions that I could find online.

    The book propounds an aesthetic standard that many find compelling. But it’s no more “grammatically incompetent”, in the sense of linguistics, than it is economically incompetent. It makes no claim to either competence, so such criticisms are misplaced.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/arundelo Aaron Brown

    @Aria Stewart:
    It’s not about grammar. It’s about writing.
    I started thinking its writing advice was overrated too after I read the Williams book other commenters have mentioned. This book gives a conceptual framework for figuring out things like when the passive voice is clearer.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/arundelo Aaron Brown

    The HTML formatting got stripped out of my previous post, including the link to the Williams book:

    http://www.amazon.com/Style-Clarity-Chicago-Writing-Publishing/dp/0226899152/

    (He’s written a few books with similar titles — one of exercises, and one that looks like a shorter version of the one linked above.)

  • http://jaltcoh.blogspot.com jaltcoh.blogspot.com

    I don’t understand the “They weren’t qualified” argument. Their qualification is: they wrote Strunk & White!

    The article is very poorly supported. His #1 gripe is about S&W’s rule against the passive voice, because he says the rule should be flexible. Problem is, S&W say the rule should be flexible. They say you should err on the side of the active voice, but use passive voice where it helps emphasize the focus of the sentence. Does anyone really argue with that?

    It seems like he was determined to take a really strong stand against S&W. But then he couldn’t come up with many specific problems with it. So he just decided to write the article anyway, weakly supported by with a strident tone.

  • frelkins

    The more I read the more I realize that in fact one of the greatest writers of our time was Dashiell Hammett. Not only is his prose evocative and clean, but his lean dialogue sounds the way Americans actually speak. His fine thrift in describing memorable characters remains amazing. There’s no self-indulgence or preening in his work at all.

    I now think Dash a better writer than Ernest, many of whose situations strain belief and who often relies too much on exotic locale.

    Ditch S&W, re-read the Maltese Falcon. Srsly.

  • Cyan

    Some are tautologous, like “Do not explain too much.”

    This is a nitpick really, but this point got under my skin. This complaint is correct, strictly speaking, but English isn’t formal logic. For example, the sentence, “They stacked the boxes on top of each other,” and the song lyric, “Everybody loves my baby, but my baby loves no one but me,” are ridiculous if interpreted as strictly as the above quote(see footnote). It’s clear to me, and I think it would be clear to the majority of readers, that the advice is just a succinct way of saying, “Pay attention to how much you’re explaining; in particular, people tend to over-explain, so try not to do that.”

    Footnote: boxes can’t be on top of each other; one must be on top of another. Everybody loves my baby, therefore my baby loves my baby. My baby loves no one but me, therefore I am my baby.

  • Douglas Knight

    Ditch S&W, re-read the Maltese Falcon

    The reason to read Strunk & White, and not just White (or Hammett) is that it’s not obvious what makes good writing good. One point of grammar is to make it easy to talk about language, to discuss what makes it good or bad. Thus Pullum is upset that S&W are sloppy about their grammar. But there are diminishing marginal returns to grammar. White didn’t have to be an expert grammarian to teach well what the finished product doesn’t.

  • John Maxwell IV

    @David:

    Did you read this bit?

    [Although the authors discourage the use of the passive voice, they admit that it’s sometimes useful.] Sadly, writing tutors tend to ignore this moderation, and simply red-circle everything that looks like a passive, just as Microsoft Word’s grammar checker underlines every passive in wavy green to signal that you should try to get rid of it. That overinterpretation is part of the damage that Strunk and White have unintentionally done. But it is not what I am most concerned about here.

  • http://jaltcoh.blogspot.com jaltcoh.blogspot.com

    Another problem with the article: he picks on things like “Omit needless words,” just based on that heading. He ignores the examples and explanations. He says this advice is a tautology, but it’s not — people break the rule all the time. It’s really important.

  • David

    @John Maxwell IV:

    The Word thing was a goof. I hate that feature and always turn it off.

    I should say that I like Elements of Style and there is no question my writing is better because of it. I think Pullum is not seeing the big picture. Just knowing that you should re-read your work with “omit needless words” in mind is very valuable, more valuable in fact than knowing exactly what passive voice is. And no matter how expertly the rules are written, someone is always going to be a stickler for them. You can’t really blame Strunk and White for that. A long, long time ago a boss got on my case for not typing two spaces after a period. He didn’t seem to care that it was WordPerfect and not a typewriter.

    When it comes to grammar and style I say learn the rules so you know how to break them. I’m willing to give other books a look but Strunk and White is a lot better than nothing and isn’t harmful, unless you use it to settle a bet about passive voice.

  • http://jaltcoh.blogspot.com jaltcoh.blogspot.com

    by with a strident tone.

    (Of course, I meant “but with a strident tone”)

  • Pekka

    You can also listen to Geoff Pullum talk on this topic, because he was a guest of NPR’s Talk of the Nation recently. I’ll link to Language Log announcement of his appearance.

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1336

    The posting contains a link to a site where you can listen to the audio. You can also comment on Language Log about Strunk & White or related issues, if you are so inclined. (Which is why I linked there.)

  • Pekka

    Ah, I expected the software to recognize the URL. Here is the same link in markup:

    Language Log: Pullum on Talk of the Nation

  • http://nebupookins.net/ Nebu Pookins

    I’m not a big Pullum fan, but I have on and off read one of the blog he contributes (LanguageLog), thus I’m pretty confident that Pullum leans towards descriptivism (like me, except I’m a more extreme descriptivist than he is). A lot of people have trouble grasping the concept of descriptivism, and so I wonder if that might be one reason why I seem to have such a different interpretation of this post than the other commenters.

    Here are two passages written by commenter “David” whom I (perhaps falsely?) believe is using these passages as arguments against Pullum, but which are in fact in agreement with Pullum. (I don’t mean to pick on you, David; it just so happened that you had the best wording of these sentiments):

    And no matter how expertly the rules are written, someone is always going to be a stickler for them. You can’t really blame Strunk and White for that.

    When it comes to grammar and style I say learn the rules so you know how to break them. I’m willing to give other books a look but Strunk and White is a lot better than nothing and isn’t harmful, unless you use it to settle a bet about passive voice.

    While Pullum does believe that S&W are wrong about certain topics (e.g. what is or isn’t a passive voice), I suspect that isn’t his main gripe. His main gripe are other people who then point to S&W as “proof” for their precritivist viewpoints (e.g. when you really do use S&W to settle a bet about passive voice).

  • David

    Nebu,

    Of course I had the best wording; I used the Elements of Style 😉

    My point was that if S&W didn’t exist, and some other book of which Pullum approves filled the void, there would still be people (and software applications) that take the rules too seriously and cause the kind of harm Pullum is warning about. I don’t think S&W should be tarred with that particular brush.

    That I was able to take example sentences Pullum approved of and make them shorter and arguably not worse hints that maybe the Elements of Style is fundamentally sound and just needs a few corrections or an errata page.

  • Br00ke

    urubu-you scare me.

  • David Smith

    I find it delightful that the two fairly vicious attacks on Strunk and White that I’ve seen on the Web recently have both been by the authors of dramatically less successful volumes. Sour grapes?

    I agree that S&W are about good writing, not grammar (which is a much less interesting and useful subject).

  • http://SingYourOwnLullaby.blogspot.com mariana

    A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices.

  • mtc

    The usage of and insistence upon proper grammar is largely a form of signaling anyway. In english, grammar is critically important to understanding the meaning of a sentence, yet it is rare that we misunderstand the meaning of those we would accuse of bad grammar. Because in fact ‘bad’ grammar is not really all that bad in and of itself, but we perceive it so disdainfully because it signals an unwillingness or inability to conform to, and or at least an ignorance of, certain arbitrary conventions of society.

  • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

    Bad grammar and bad spelling interfere with the smooth reading of the text; they unnecessarily make the reader work harder to understand what was written. In the event, careless grammar and spelling can be considered a sign of contempt for the reader, or serious incompetence in the writer (in which case why bother reading what he wrote).

    As the old saying goes, “Hard thinking makes for easier reading.”

  • Doug S.

    But this is not the question people want to ask. Instead they want to ask the question: how do I cover my ass? How do I ensure that what I write cannot be objected to? If someone doubts the way I phrased something, what authority can I hit them with?

    Exactly.

    One of the times I tried to take the Expository Writing course at Rutgers University, which is a graduation requirement for all students, the instructor declared that the class was not allowed to begin a sentence with “however” because it was grammatically incorrect. However, I disagreed that it was incorrect grammar, but a mere undergraduate student arguing with a professor over something that stupid isn’t going to get very far. I never did pass that course, and eventually got special permission from the Dean of Engineering to take a technical writing course instead of the evil, evil expository writing course. (And, dammit, just because I can’t think of a single thing to say about genetically modified potatoes doesn’t mean I’m not capable of producing better prose than than ninety percent of the other students in the class!)

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    Others have said it, but I found this piece pretty fatuous, given that a) Pullum really does not provide clear examples of what S&W proposed that is actually incorrect (or their own supposed errors of grammar), and b) he agrees that there are no agreed-upon experts, and thus in the end no rules (although I realize that he is partly complaining about people using S&W as the authorities on what the rules are).

    One of the things he seems worked up about is the whole “that-which” business, although that seems to have been invented by Fowler rather than S&W. As an editor, I have noticed that this seems to be one of those things distinguishing British English and American English, with the former not obeying this “rule” at all.

    Which brings up that S&W are very American, with many Americans admiring “efficiency” in writing (Hanson?). So, S&W are a great hit with their advocacy of brevity and clarity, and certainly the latter is generally desirable. Among no-nonsense Americans, this would be Hemingway, along with Hammett. Of course, this says that Faulkner is a naughty, and, Proust? Well, he is not American anyway.

    Needless to say there are times when not following the rules can lead to problems, with the title of that recent book, _Eats, Shoots, and Leaves_ (Panda in restaurant) being a prime example.

  • http://disputedissues.blogspot.com/2009/05/assessing-strunk-white.html Stephen R. Diamond

    None of the reviews of Strunk & White have looked at the historical context. Did the book first propound the style guidelines it announces, or were they already current? What concepts of stylistic virtue were in the running when White published the book? Answers to these questions would be more interesting than the polemics of linguists searching for battlefields to enact their obsessional mock war between prescriptivists and descriptivists.

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