50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice
By GEOFFREY K. PULLUM
April 16 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a little book that is loved and admired throughout American academe. Celebrations, readings, and toasts are being held, and a commemorative edition has been released.
I won’t be celebrating.
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.
The authors won’t be hurt by these critical remarks. They are long dead. William Strunk was a professor of English at Cornell about a hundred years ago, and E.B. White, later the much-admired author of Charlotte’s Web, took English with him in 1919, purchasing as a required text the first edition, which Strunk had published privately. After Strunk’s death, White published a New Yorker article reminiscing about him and was asked by Macmillan to revise and expand Elements for commercial publication. It took off like a rocket (in 1959) and has sold millions.
This was most unfortunate for the field of English grammar, because 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.” (Explaining too much means explaining more than you should, so of course you shouldn’t.) Many are useless, like “Omit needless words.” (The students who know which words are needless don’t need the instruction.) Even so, it doesn’t hurt to lay such well-meant maxims before novice writers.
Even the truly silly advice, like “Do not inject opinion,” doesn’t really do harm. (No force on earth can prevent undergraduates from injecting opinion. And anyway, sometimes that is just what we want from them.) 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. Following the platitudinous style recommendations of Elements would make your writing better if you knew how to follow them, but that is not true of the grammar stipulations.
I’ve read the book while in college. I’ve always cringed when people call it a writing bible, and the like. It was especially irritating when people I admired held it in awe. I must admit that I was irritated because I kept on asking myself if I was stupid or something because I never was awed. I’ve always felt that when our professors or other people we admire declares something we either auto shutdown our brains. This happens whether we are an auto agree type of person or if we are the contrarian type. This is wrong. We should not fall into these bad habits of the mind.