Saturday, April 25, 2009

Of Strunk & White and Grammar Wars

Just a few weeks ago, I had to dig my old Strunk & White to check on a possible grammar lapse I've made. I did not know then that April 16 marked the 50th anniversary of the slim grammar guide book. At the end of the day, I could not find my copy, probably because I have lent it to someone; I really must start keeping a log of people who borrow stuff from me. But I'm digressing, and perhaps I should work on cohesion and unity more than grammar and syntax.

So it's the 50th anniversary of William Strunk Jr and EB White's Elements and Style, which came to be commonly and simply called Strunk & White. I believe few would say they're not familiar with the book. Our high school teachers and college English professors consider the book a canon, and I have a suspicion that even the most tenacious grammar nazi secretly reads it.

I got my copy from the Philippine Collegian's editor-in-chief when I was a freshman and newbie news writer. It was one of only two things that I will ever thank him for. I read the book, and I read it still--until of course someone borrowed it from me and managed to forget about returning it.

I was amused then, when I checked my email earlier, to find out that April 16 marks the 50th anniversary of Strunk & White's publication, and that an English professor called Geoffrey K. Pullum couldn't care less. He tells us why in a quite rabid article titled Years of Stupid Grammar Advice, published in The Chronicle Review.

Why we should think twice
One of Pullum's concerns about Strunk & White's popularity is that its authors are hardly qualifed to write about the elements and style of the English language. He says:

"[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."
Those who read Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web when they were kids, show of hands please?

But even if the authors were qualified, Pullum says they hardly gave any good advice. The Edinburgh professor is far from impressed about the book's suggestions on writing style:

"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.) ...
"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."
What irks Pullum more, however, is the author's brazen disregard of the very grammar rules that they claim to be correct. He mentions a lot of instances when the book would turn on itself and commit the very same errors that they supposedly warn the reader about, from the surprisingly incorrect examples of sentences in passive voice to the book's unfounded bias against adjectives and adverbs.

I am afraid though that I will have to agree about the majority of his observations and will therefore be more prudent in following the book's grammar rules from now on. But what caught my attention is a warp in Pullum's otherwise clear reasoning. He discredits EB White in particular as a competent grammarian because he is a literary writer, and thus less wary (or aware) about stringent grammar rules. Yet in one of his attacks on one of the book's grammar advice, he uses literary passages as proofs of his reasoning:

"Strunk and White preferred to base their grammar claims on intuition and prejudice rather than established literary usage.

"Consider the explicit instruction: 'With none, use the singular verb when the word means 'no one' or 'not one.' Is this a rule to be trusted? Let's investigate.

" *Try searching the script of Oscar Wilde's
The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) for "none of us." There is one example of it as a subject: "None of us are perfect" (spoken by the learned Dr. Chasuble). It has plural agreement.

" *Download and search Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). It contains no cases of "none of us" with singular-inflected verbs, but one that takes the plural ("I think that none of us were surprised when we were asked to see Mrs. Harker a little before the time of sunset").

" *Examine the text of Lucy Maud Montgomery's popular novel
Anne of Avonlea (1909). There are no singular examples, but one with the plural ('None of us ever do')."
Any one of course could easily reason back that "no one" or "not one" and "none of us" are entirely different phrases and may perhaps take on a singular or plural verb, depending on the context. But I better leave that to the more assiduous. The blogosphere is teeming with language cops.

Why Strunk & White isn't a big fat grammar book
It's interesting to note that Pullum has actually published a grammar book, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002). I bet my ass it's a big fat grammar book hell-bent on covering almost everyhing essential about English grammar.

Strunk & White, on the other hand, for all its brevity and simplicity, should never be mistaken for a comprehensive grammar book, much less a grammar book for those that are only beginning to take grammar seriously.

Ultimately, I think Strunk & White only works only for those who already have a good, although at times weak, grasp of the essentials of grammar. Its fault lies on its many erroneous grammar edicts and its ambition to be a guide book for anyone and everyone who wants to know the basics of English compositon.

Still, Strunk & White can be saved from total disgrace by its suggestions on style. Pullum says most of the book's advice are uselessly vague and tautological, but to most of those who are earlier acquainted with grammar rules, these uselessly vague and tautological advice are more than enough to remind them of sound writing styles. For example:
"Many are useless [advice], 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."
This is quite confusing logic, since "novice writers" of course can not necessarily discern which words are "needless" and which are not. The advice, maybe unintentionally, would be of much use for those who can criticize themselves and who only needs a reminder to check their composition for possible deadwood.

I want to write more, but I am beginning to feel guilty that I am dedicating a lengthy post on Strunk and White, while I neglected to write about The Hobbit's 70th anniversary in 2007. And of course, I know Strunk and White will always be Strunk and White. And if anything, quite ironically, Pullum's own rants will nudge the book's commemorative edition higher up the bestseller charts. I wont be getting a new copy, though.

Read the bitchy professor's full essay here.


Herbs D. said...

somehow, I do take side with Strunk and White's. I don't find it as prejudice to literay-but somewhat an expression through the arts in a way of breaking the rules.

reminds me a lot of photography. There are rules, but sometimes you just really have to break them to give that awesome shot :)

I think what's really important in a book is that on how it connects with the reader, not how many grammar lapses it had or fragments and all.

Just like blogging-it would take us forever correcting each other's grammar from the number of blogs around the web. But do we really care? As long as the content makes your brain cum, we're good with it.

Unless of course, if your grammatical errors are already crying through the seams. I wouldn't beg to differ.

not so nose-bleeding as I expect it to be hahah :P

kudos for the research, mate!

ShatterShards said...

A blog entry about grammar and writing, and a book about grammar and writing. I love it! hehe

:: cb :: said...

i'm confused, didn't u say u liked this book?

Andy Briones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Victor Gregor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Victor Gregor said...

hello all. hehe. thanks for reading this long, wearisome post. :)

@herbs: i agree. but rules and grammar, i think, are forgiveable only when you want to put a point across (i.e. literary).

@shattershards: owing to the tiresome nature of posts like this, i actually thought twice about writing this. but what the heck. LOL. :)

@cb: i did. i like it less now than before i have ever heard pf pullum. :)

@andy: i'm curious as to how you break the bad news to these unfortunate employees (e.g. "say that again? for a while, i thought you made a grammatical slip there. ) LOL.

Victor Gregor said...

@andy: i accidentally deleted your comment. sorry. :(

Andy Briones said...

No prob. :-)

Mr. Scheez said...

Haaay, nakakafrustrate ang English grammar ko. Ang tagal ko na graduate pero until now dami pa rin lapses sa pagsusulat ko ng ingles. Sana I paid more attention to my English teachers back then instead na laging mag-stare sa mga kras ko sa guys sa class. LOL! =)

Mas gusto ko ang speech (Public Speaking) kesa writing. Dun ang pinakamataas ko na grade sa lahat ng English subjects ko. Ang yabang ko. LOL! =)

ShatterShards said...

It was a fun post! You shouln't have had second thought publishing it. That, or maybe I'm just agog over grammar, although I abuse it myself, every once in a while. hehe.

Hmmm... I think I've tried that [random writing] before, but the gramatically incorrect sentences got to me, and I ended up not writing, and disappointed at myself. haha!

Victor Gregor said...

@mr scheez: wow, spontaneous ka kasi yata.


on "although I abuse it myself, every once in a while. hehe."

-->> don't we all? LOL.