IT’S STRUNK-BASHIN’ TIME AGAIN.

Geoff Pullum, of Language Log (and Eskimo-snow-words) fame, celebrates the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Elements of Style with a Chronicle Review column even more vitriolic, if that’s possible, than his earlier attacks on the excessively loved Strunk-’n'-White combo. Needless to say, I applaud; with regard to their notorious strictures against the passive (which, as Geoff points out, they seem unable to identify in the first place), I will quote my comment in the related MetaFilter thread:

I just came across this in an excellent piece on Chekhov by the long-forgotten (probably because he emigrated to Bulgaria instead of Paris or New York) Russian émigré critic Petr Bitsilli (whom Nabokov praised as the most intelligent critic of his writings in a 1943 letter):
A Chekhov character is … an object of external influence rather than a subject, and his residual humanity consists in responding to the outside pressures with his mind and heart. This is attested to by Chekhov’s language. Significantly enough, one often encounters in his works passive, third-person constructions such as “it appeared to him,” “it occurred to him,” and the like, instead of sentences in which a human being plays an active role, in which he or she thinks, recalls, desires, and so on.

Of course, the Strunkonians will say that great writers get to break the “rules.” I will respond that Professor Pullum wrote The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, so if anyone is qualified to say what the rules are, it’s him, and not a couple of amateurs like Whunk and Strite.

Comments

  1. That’s a bit weird. I would assume the emigre critic read Chekhov in Russian, but it sounds like he’s commenting on a literal translation. In Russian those phrases are standard usage. Emotions happen to you (Мне весело — literally it is happy to me), and over the years (bad) socio-psycho-linguists have claimed that this is a sign of innate Russian passivity. It’s hard to believe this guy, praised by the great N, bought into that. Haven’t noticed unusual use of that in Chekhov, but maybe I’m wrong.

  2. Victor S. says:

    Mab: I completely agree, it’s a strange observation. It was originally written in Russian, I presume?
    Also, Nabokov applauding a critic of his work… that alone is enough to raise a flag for me.

  3. What “strictures”? Have you actually read S&W? I quote: “This rule, of course, does not mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”
    Relax, you overeducated linguists. Your over-the-top criticism betrays your jealousy for a simple, concise manual that has helped many be better writers.

  4. I agree with mab as well. And even if Chekhov did use impersonal constructions more than your average Russian writer it’s hard to see how that would support use of the passive in English. Chekhov wasn’t breaking any rules of Russian style and isn’t known as a great innovator in language I don’t beleive.

  5. OK, OK, the Bitsilli quote is actually a red herring, since the “passive” was introduced by the translator, Carol A. Palmer; the Russian says: “Чеховский человек менее всего „монада” в смысле воплощения какой бы то ни было идеи. Он скорее, если можно так выразиться, – геометрическое место скрещения всевозможных восприятий, объект внешних воздействий – его человечность в том, что он реагирует на них умом и сердцем, – нежели субъект. Об этом свидетельствует опять-таки чеховская форма: не случайно, вместо предложений, где человек играет роль „подлежащего”, где он думает, вспоминает, желает и тому под., у него столь часты бессубъектные фразы типа ему захотелось, ему вспомнилось и тому под., выражающие состояние, сродное тому, какое передается постоянным у Чехова глаголом казаться – или конструкций типа что-то напоминало (ему, ей, мне).” Bitsilli is talking about impersonal forms, not English passives, so the quote is irrelevant to S&W. But it’s still a good insight into Chekhov, and hell, it gave me a chance to mention Bitsilli. I should really do a post about him and/or created a Wikipedia article (there’s not even one in Russian Wikipedia).

  6. It’s still not obvious to me that Chekhov uses impersonal forms more than your typical Russian writer of the period, maybe I’ll go back and read him more attentively.
    It’s interesting how the S&W debate seems to be a coded fight about elitism. S&W is beloved by the middlebrow – and has been detested by artists and intellectuals probably since it was published. I came across S&W in my public high school, but at my Ivy League college in the 1980s no writing or English professor ever cited S&W, and probably would have been laughed at if they’d tried. S&W’s defenders (see the ridiculously intemperate comments at Fark.com, if you follow the links from the LL post) clearly feel like they’re being mocked when people like Pullum try to tell them S&W is a compendium of arbitrary and sometimes harmful rules. The lesson may be that a lot of people simply like having arbitrary rules, it makes life easier by subtracting choice. So I’m not sure it’s worth fighting S&W – I don’t think any great artists can honestly claim they’ve been damaged by it, and if the Elements of Style make it easier for Tom the Management Consultant to compose his report on inefficiencies in the retail distribution sector, well so be it.

  7. So I’m not sure it’s worth fighting S&W – I don’t think any great artists can honestly claim they’ve been damaged by it, and if the Elements of Style make it easier for Tom the Management Consultant to compose his report on inefficiencies in the retail distribution sector, well so be it.
    I don’t know about great artists, but I did write this some months back on the Log in response to a teacher who claimed prescriptivist rules helped his students:
    “I don’t see how I can argue with your getting better history papers from your students after issuing a blanket proscription against summative pronouns. It’s your class; I wasn’t there.
    “But as somebody who once imbibed many similar proscriptions, I will say that such ‘rules’ can be harmful for students. Sure, for someone so inexperienced they haven’t even learned what a pronoun is, banning dangling modifiers and such might make a paper slightly less bad. But when that person actually starts writing grownup prose, they’re gonna have to unlearn all those nonsense rules, and that’s not easy to do. They’ll write a sentence and reread it, and then swimming in their head alongside all the questions they should be asking themselves — is it clear? is it elegant? is it the tone I want? — will be this whopping distraction: does it follow the rules? And if it doesn’t follow the so-called rules, they’ll have to ask if it’s ‘worth’ breaking the rules, as though there’s some value to following the rules that’s separate from writing well. This might not sound like a big deal, but writing is a subtle process, and this kind of distraction makes a difference.”

  8. The lesson may be that a lot of people simply like having arbitrary rules, it makes life easier by subtracting choice.
    This is very true, and grammar is perhaps the least harmful of the areas in which it does harm (accepting senseless rules from “betters” and governments has more serious consequences), but as jamessal points out, the grammar bullshit may not get people killed but it does do damage, and I intend to continue mocking it (which is fun even if unproductive).

  9. I’m with Vanya — not quite convinced that Chekhov used the impersonal form to excess and to that purpose. But now I’m curious about Bitsilli. So thanks for that.
    @jamessal and Hat. I grew up with all that, too, and had it rammed into my head in school and then, in particuarly mean-spirited and heartless form, by one horrible boss. But I can’t say I’ve experienced any of the angst or insecurity you describe, and I’m pretty good at angst and insecurity. I find your sense of the emotional damage done by S&W to be puzzling. But, as they say, your milage may vary.

  10. And your spelling, too. Make that “millage.”

  11. marie-lucie says:

    What “strictures”? Have you actually read S&W? I quote: “This rule, of course, does not mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”
    I have not read S&W, but from all the comments about it (not just here) I gather that they do not either define the passive voice or give examples of when and why it is convenient and necessary, thus leaving would-be writers in the dark about this important topic and resulting in an impoverishment of their style as they avoid not only the passive but also other constructions that they mistakenly assume are passive. (See at least two recent threads about the passive voice on Language Log, both with lots of comments from the public).
    Relax, you overeducated linguists. Your over-the-top criticism betrays your jealousy for a simple, concise manual that has helped many be better writers.
    You should say that to Geoff Pullum, not to the readers of this post. Whether it is a good thing or not, most linguists are not interested in composing writing manuals and therefore have nothing to be jealous about.

  12. jamessal says:

    But, as they say, your milage may vary.
    Yes, it may: some people will have the experience I describe above; some will have will have what Vanya describes. So we might as well stick to the facts: S&W is, to quote Pullum, “a book full of vague platitudes about clarity, incoherent grammatical analyses, and made-up rules.” Considering that people still think of it as the bedrock of English grammar and whatnot, I don’t see anything wrong with giving it a public beating every once in a while. (Not that you said there was.)

  13. The problem, as always with religion, is that people are not content to follow the rules – and as with religion they’re singularly bad at doing so – they feel need to impose them on others. And in this time of Easter (I really should write to my vicar about leaving the CoD) it seems amusingly appropriate that the S&Wians are so eager to notice the mote in their brother’s eye.
    If they want to write without adverbs and adjectives, more power to them. But they’ll have to wrench my “fucking”s from my cold, dead hands.

  14. michael farris says:

    Every once in a while I like to torture my translation students by giving them assignments of prose written by ordinary native speakers (of Polish or English) instead of professionals.
    Inevitably they find this horrible to deal with (much more so than the assignments I give that I carefully choose for cultural/linguistic incompatability)
    see here for a product that makes no cultural sense at all for most Poles:
    http://www.peacerug.com/www/docs/2/what_is_the_peace_rug.html
    The sad truth is that most people are not very good writers (and the more you have to understand them, the worse they are).
    I agree that S&W is mostly nonsense but AFAIK it has never been aimed at professionals or people with finely honed intuitions.
    I remember being in classes where S&W was reccomended and being horrified at actually reading it but I’m not convinced it does harm. Anyone who’s a good writer or knows linguistics also knows enough to disregard it (I should hope).

  15. kmage

  16. Having now perused the MF thread, I find it interesting to see how Hat changes register over there.
    I don’t know why that surprises me, but it does.

  17. I haven’t looked at S&W for a long time, but it helped my writing when I was young — it was much more helpful than any writing teacher I had until I was in my late teens. Certainly more useful than the other writing manuals that were given me. (God! *The Practical Stylist*! Everybody gave me that damn book!) I still revise, decades later, with S&W’s ghostly voice in my head, asking me if every word tells. I yearned for certainty, back then, and they gave it to me. The next step, of course, was unlearning nearly everything they taught me, but that’s just how learning to do things works, nicht?

  18. Kevin S. says:

    About all that Pullum’s vulgar, confused, and intemperate article demonstrates is that he has a pathological obsession with Strunk & White’s little style manual, an obsession that suggests he needs psychiatric attention.
    As for causative factors, I suspect that Pullum’s knuckles were rapped once too often by grammatical authority figures when he was a child, and nonsense such as this is what results. Indeed, one might rename fora such as this, and the Language Log, “The Bruised Knuckle Infirmary”, where resentful recovering language rebels can gather to vent their bile and hurt feelings over the red ink that once covered their high school essays and term papers.
    As for the rest of us, we’ll take style manuals for what they are intended to be: Makers of SUGGESTIONS regarding style, and not as the evil authority figures that others like to pretend that they are. In other words, do not make Strunk & White the whipping boys for the abuses of those who have misused or misunderstood their advice.

  19. jamessal says:

    As for the rest of us, we’ll take style manuals for what they are intended to be: Makers of SUGGESTIONS
    Kevin, I understand you and Mark Halpern are excited to have an argument that’s *theoretically* sound to show all those know-it-all linguists what’s what, but c’mon, all rhetoric, all macho bullshit aside, do you really think that’s the way most people think of S&W? Do I really have to search for quotes?

  20. Yeah, Kevin, I have no problem with people taking the advice for what it’s worth if they have a good sense of that, but get real—the “rest of us” you claim to speak for are, as far as I can judge, a tiny minority of the Strunkonians. Have you read any of the wild-eyed ranting by the hardshelled S&W fans out there? It’s the ONLY BOOK YOU NEED! If you don’t learn its lessons YOU WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO USE ENGLISH WELL! Read enough of that stuff and you start to wish the damn thing never existed.

  21. Jamessal:
    I cannot speak for Mark Halpern, but I am not interested in having arguments for the sake of arguing, at all. As for the “macho bullshit”, and “rhetoric”, I really have no idea what you are talking about. If people cannot understand something so fundamental as a book that has the word “style” in the title, then I am not sure what else to say!
    Language Hat:
    I have no doubt that many in the pro-Strunk/White crowd are as obnoxious as Pullum, but that fact hardly excuses the latter’s attitude. Perhaps that’s the problem, though: There’s too much reactivity based upon the drawing of battle lines (As you know, I confess to having been guilty of this, myself).
    In any case, I certainly see your point, and there are things that I don’t like in that book, myself (I could live without White’s entire “remarks on style” chapter, myself). I simply dislike seeing the book misrepresented as being a prescriptive guide to grammar (see Pullum’s title) when it is just a style manual. I also dislike seeing Strunk & White personally abused for the sins of later, overly literal educators and editors who have misunderstood and misused their book.
    That said, I think we can agree that Strunk & White should not be used prescriptively, or as any sort of final authority. As to the soundness of their suggestions (or the lack thereof), reasonable minds can certainly disagree.

  22. Indeed, one might rename fora such as this, and the Language Log, “The Bruised Knuckle Infirmary”, where resentful recovering language rebels can gather to vent their bile and hurt feelings over the red ink that once covered their high school essays and term papers.
    Three hours later…
    As for the “macho bullshit”, and “rhetoric”, I really have no idea what you are talking about.
    And he’s one of the smart ones.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    Indeed, one might rename fora such as this, and the Language Log, “The Bruised Knuckle Infirmary”
    One wonders how often the reader visits either site. Even at LLog, which is run by linguists and deals pretty exclusively with linguistic topics, some of them quite technical, there is a lot more going on than discussing style manuals. Here the interests of the host and the commenters are much more varied and much less technical (from the viewpoint of a strict definition of “linguistic”). “Resentful recovering rebels” – does anyone here fit that description?

  24. There is nothing like S&W to incite a near riot. What I always find so puzzling is that the people who loathe S&W for its being used as a battering ram against decent writing, historical English usage, open minds and sensitive natures have no problem launching a battering ram against anyone who raises a voice, however mild, in its (partial) defense. That is, if the main crime of S&W is not so much the silly rules but the way people use it insult and diminish people, why is okay for some of you to insult and diminish people whose comments aren’t categorical enough to suit you? The justification is so odd: I get to call you an elitist, macho, bigoted idiot because somewhere else, on another site, in another room, in another country, some jerk is railing against “split infinitives.” Well, go fight that jerk. We all agree that he’s a jerk. But – to quote a favorite old commercial: Don’t take it out on me!
    I know, I know. I do this, too. Someone will innocently repeat some bit of received wisdom about translation or Russia and I go ballistic. But I repent.
    PS Extra points for identifying the product advertised.

  25. Don’t take it out on me: Vickie: Jack, can you do the dishes tonight? I’m very tired.
    Jack: Can’t we just put them in the dish-washer? I’ve had a very bad day, too! I just want to kick back and relax.
    Vickie: Hey! Just because you had a bad day today doesn’t give you permission to take it out on me!
    Jack: Just leave me alone!
    Vickie: Why are you being such a turd! I wish I hadn’t gotten married!…
    A turd?

  26. Close but no cigar. While all you are at the baricades of language, I’m going nuts trying to remember the product. I can see the black and white woman, rubbing her temples after her outburst. Was it aspirin? Exedrin? Prozac? Jack Daniels?
    Please put me out of my misery.

  27. SnowLeopard says:

    I think mab put it well. The recurring bashing of S&W and its partisans with name calling and personal attacks like “And he’s one of the smart ones” and “amateurs like Whunk and Strite” may be fun for those who indulge in it, but from the outside it just sounds like you’re congratulating one another for being one of the Enlightened Elite, a political party to which I may or may not belong and among whom I may or may not be welcome. Probably neither, because I tend to miss the nuances and complexities that are lost when political lines like these get drawn and entrenched. I’m certainly curious about Pullum’s book, as I am about everything mentioned on this site and in its comments, and I’m sure Pullum and his publisher are delighted. But I do not mistake this for sound, factual, or reasoned discourse, and as far as I’m concerned, Pullum’s book will have to persuade me or not on its own merits, as I may find or overlook them for myself, not on the number of times I or someone else is called an idiot.

  28. mab: Please put me out of my misery.
    It’s a bit scary, mab. I hope you’re ready for this. Take Anacin
    I knew the answer wasn’t ‘A turd’, but I did think it was a peculiar thing to call your loved one in those circumstances.

  29. marie-lucie says:

    SnowLeopard: Pullum’s book (or rather Huddleston & Pullum’s book) is an enormous, very serious grammar of contemporary English, not a manual of style. It is in no way a rival for S&W (and vice versa) as it has a different purpose altogether. If Pullum seems over the top about S&W, he also tends to be over the top when commenting on other things – that is just his personal style (as opposed to his professional style).

  30. marie-lucie says:

    mab: Emotions happen to you (Мне весело — literally it is happy to me), and over the years (bad) socio-psycho-linguists have claimed that this is a sign of innate Russian passivity.
    I can’t believe that genuine linguists would claim such a thing.
    If this use is a sign of “innate passivity”, then English speakers have become increasingly active over the centuries and are now much more active than their ancestors or their European neighbours (among others), since the language has lost similar constructions. Now archaic forms such as “me thinks” parallel the Russian example above (lit. “it thinks to me”, meaning “a thought happens to me”) and are similar to Spanish me gusta or French il/elle/ça me plaît” or German mir gefällt (all “I like …”). English has to treat emotions or ideas as if they were (controllable) actions, while other languages recognize that emotions are spontaneous responses, they are not willed.

  31. SnowLeopard says:

    marie-lucie: thanks for the clarification. I imagine I’ll probably still get a copy of Pullum’s book during my next Amazon spree, budget permitting.

  32. I simply dislike seeing the book misrepresented as being a prescriptive guide to grammar … when it is just a style manual. I also dislike seeing Strunk & White personally abused for the sins of later, overly literal educators and editors who have misunderstood and misused their book.
    Well, that’s fair enough. I can’t speak for all the bashers, but I have never personally abused the authors; Strunk was just a teacher who put together a set of advice for his class, and White was a fine writer who had a few bees in his bonnet, which we all do. While I can sympathize with the hurt feelings of those who worship the book and dislike seeing it abused, I don’t think it’s fair to expect those of us who are sick of seeing it quoted and waved as if it were Holy Writ to remain calm and judicious at all times. It is, after all, just a book; it has no feelings to hurt, and those who feel pain on its behalf are just being silly. (Not talking about you, obviously; your position is quite reasonable.)
    That said, I think we can agree that Strunk & White should not be used prescriptively, or as any sort of final authority. As to the soundness of their suggestions (or the lack thereof), reasonable minds can certainly disagree.
    Well said. You’re a mensch.

  33. As for the Huddleston/Pullum book, I certainly wouldn’t advocate anyone but professionals buying it (sorry, Geoff)—the damn thing costs $200, and I have no intention of acquiring a copy myself. I’m not recommending its purchase when I cite it, just pointing out the difference between Pullum, a linguist who has cowritten the standard grammar, and White, a good writer but completely ignorant (like most non-linguists) of how language actually works.

  34. Snow Leopard, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, is an enjoyable reference book of style to put up against Strunk & White. It goes word by word, but it quickly makes you realise the futility of judging other people’s usage too harshly. I read it in the bath. I just was reading today the entry on ‘its’ vs ‘it’s’ — it cites examples of Thos Jefferson and Jane Austen using them “wrongly”, but then also advises the reader to adhere to contemporary usage. It’s gentle and scholarly, and doesn’t imply that your friends will avoid you if you don’t heed its advice.

  35. jamessal says:

    Mab, SnowLeopard: I’ve always enjoyed both of your comments in the past, but c’mon, where did these thin skins come from? I certainly didn’t attack you, Mab, and I can’t understand why my one intemperate outburst (“And he’s one of the smart ones”) should preclude anyone from absorbing the substance of Pullum’s article or Hat’s post, or even of the initial exchange between Kevin and me. Maybe I should be a little more New Testament, but it’s frustrating the way Kevin sallies forth, guns blazing, only to retreat the next comment behind (obtuse) CIVILIZED DISCOURSE. (I guess I’m assuming this all about me because my outburst is the closest thing I find in this thread to riot…elitist, macho, bigoted idiot…fight jerk…personal attacks; with regard to grammar, “amateurs” is no insult to the dead authors of S&W — it’s a fact.)

  36. jamessal says:

    Yes, I second the recommendation of MWDEU, which Hat recommended me.

  37. Mab & SnowLeopard:
    Your points are very well taken, and are largely the reason why I have entered this fray, although I have learned the hard way to try not to let my own annoyance at times get the better of me. Some days, I succeed better than others. :-P
    Jamessal:
    The “guns blazing” that you perceive was really just a failed attempt at semi-facetiousness on my part. My particular point with the “bruised knuckle” comments is that two can play at the game of analyzing underlying motives (and at being snide about it). Why does Pullum get a pass with you, though, whereas anyone else who, even satirically, adopts his tone and tactics incites “frustration”?
    In any case, there’s no “retreat” involved on my part. I am sorry if my positions on these matters are more nuanced than you’d like, and that it therefore makes it harder for you to demonize me. That’s just the way it is.
    At any rate, my remarks about Pullum are amply justified, so far as I am concerned, and it seems to me that the terms “macho bullshit” and “posturing” apply much more to his form of “argument” than to mine. That is why I mentioned not knowing what you were talking about, as it seems to me that your strictures could very easily apply to Pullum’s *Chronicle* article.
    Language Hat:
    I am beginning to understand better the origins of the hostility between (for lack of better terms) descriptivist and prescriptivist camps, as both sides seem to have their intemperate moments, and this has obviously clouded understanding–my own, included. Believe it or not, I’d actually like to see some of the cobwebs cleared, as it seems that each side has misapprehensions about the other.
    I do feel, however, that articles such as Pullum’s do not aid in any sort of rapprochement or mutual understanding–hence, my initial comment. If Pullum simply wants to blow off steam, though, then that’s fine; it’s an impulse I well understand, myself!

  38. First you say: About all that Pullum’s vulgar, confused, and intemperate article demonstrates is that he has a pathological obsession with Strunk & White’s little style manual, an obsession that suggests he needs psychiatric attention. As for causative factors, I suspect that Pullum’s knuckles were rapped once too often by grammatical authority figures when he was a child, and nonsense such as this is what results. Indeed, one might rename fora such as this, and the Language Log, “The Bruised Knuckle Infirmary”, where resentful recovering language rebels can gather to vent their bile and hurt feelings over the red ink that once covered their high school essays and term papers.

    Then you say: Believe it or not, I’d actually like to see some of the cobwebs cleared, as it seems that each side has misapprehensions about the other.
    Well, I don’t believe it at all. No one would ever try to start a dialogue with your opening statement. Your vulgar, confused, and intemperate post demonstrates is that you have a pathological obsession with Pullum, an obsession that suggests you need psychiatric attention. As for causative factors, I suspect that your knuckles were rapped once too often by linguistic authority figures when you were a child, and nonsense such as this is what results. Indeed, one might rename the chaos of your mind “The Bruised Knuckle Infirmary”, where a resentful unrecovering eighth grade teacher vents his bile and hurt feelings over the red ink that once covered their college essays and term papers.

  39. First you say: About all that Pullum’s vulgar, confused, and intemperate article demonstrates is that he has a pathological obsession with Strunk & White’s little style manual, an obsession that suggests he needs psychiatric attention. As for causative factors, I suspect that Pullum’s knuckles were rapped once too often by grammatical authority figures when he was a child, and nonsense such as this is what results. Indeed, one might rename fora such as this, and the Language Log, “The Bruised Knuckle Infirmary”, where resentful recovering language rebels can gather to vent their bile and hurt feelings over the red ink that once covered their high school essays and term papers.

    Then you say: Believe it or not, I’d actually like to see some of the cobwebs cleared, as it seems that each side has misapprehensions about the other.
    Well, I don’t believe it at all. No one would ever try to start a dialogue with your opening statement. Your vulgar, confused, and intemperate post demonstrates is that you have a pathological obsession with Pullum, an obsession that suggests you need psychiatric attention. As for causative factors, I suspect that your knuckles were rapped once too often by linguistic authority figures when you were a child, and nonsense such as this is what results. Indeed, one might rename the chaos of your mind “The Bruised Knuckle Infirmary”, where a resentful unrecovering eighth grade teacher vents his bile and hurt feelings over the red ink that once covered their college essays and term papers.

  40. Kevin S. says:

    John:
    You don’t seem to get it. That initial post of mine was a parodic riposte to Pullum using his own style and tactics. Those who dish it out must learn to take it. See SnowLeopard’s post for more on the subject.
    As for that post’s being no way to initiate a dialogue… well, your views notwithstanding, it *has* initiated one, as only you and, to a slightly lesser extent, Jamessal have taken overt offense to my remarks and failed to see either the humor or the intent behind them.
    Just to be completely clear, I do think in all seriousness that even those who agree strongly with Pullum regarding Strunk and White should question why Pullum feels the need to attack their work so persistently and vehemently. It really is odd, I think.

  41. Kevin S. says:

    Hmm, I seem to be dialoguing in between the spam bots, now….
    Anyway, I have made my points, and so I’ll bow out of here, now. Thanks to Language Hat for his reasonable replies and for his tolerant hosting of my contrarian remarks in this space.
    For the rest of you, as the Human Torch used to say, “Flame on!” Whatever you write, I won’t see it, so have a ball!
    Regards,
    K.S.

  42. I didn’t see anything either in Hat’s post or in Pullum’s that justified your venom.
    The vehemence of Pullum’s animosity, comes from the fact that S&W is the standard writing manual automatically recommended to people who don’t write well, and he doesn’t think that it’s a good one.
    I’m more neutral than most here, but I have additional doubts about imposing the New Yorker style on the world. I love Thurber, Perelman, and Benchley, and they’ve heavily influenced my own style, but they’re rather limited writers, as are most New Yorker writers. (And as am I!)

  43. I didn’t see anything either in Hat’s post or in Pullum’s that justified your venom.
    The vehemence of Pullum’s animosity, comes from the fact that S&W is the standard writing manual automatically recommended to people who don’t write well, and he doesn’t think that it’s a good one.
    I’m more neutral than most here, but I have additional doubts about imposing the New Yorker style on the world. I love Thurber, Perelman, and Benchley, and they’ve heavily influenced my own style, but they’re rather limited writers, as are most New Yorker writers. (And as am I!)

  44. For the rest of you, as the Human Torch used to say, “Flame on!” Whatever you write, I won’t see it, so have a ball!
    [drops turd, exits left]

  45. For the rest of you, as the Human Torch used to say, “Flame on!” Whatever you write, I won’t see it, so have a ball!
    [drops turd, exits left]

  46. Oh, Mr. Crown, sir, thank you!From Wiki: “As mother wilted, daughter would then emote and rub her head, with her inner voice saying, ‘Sure, you’re tired, you have a headache, but don’t take it out on her!’” This scene was imprinted on my suggestive little brain in childhood.
    M-L: well, really bad English-speaking pseudo-linguists write that tripe about Russian. Really bad Russian pseudo-linguists write that the capital “I” in Englis is an indication of the individualistic nature of Americans and proof that they were raised in Pride (while Russians were raised in Humility).

  47. marie-lucie says:

    The vehemence of Pullum’s animosity is typical of Pullum in general and not just directed as Strunk and White, so his frequent readers can take it in stride, but people who encounter him for the first time in the S&W piece don’t know that and may think that his style either is typical of linguists in general, or betrays a pathological obsession with S&W, when it is just vintage Pullum.

  48. I think the guy in the commercial had a condition that wasn’t going to get better with just a couple of Anacin. He probably disappeared when he started taking it out on the Vietnamese.

  49. SnowLeopard says:

    jamessal– If you really were just venting, and you do acknowledge that there are other reasonable points of view here, bygones. Life is short, and dwelling on this fuss gets us no closer to real insight. I’ll take your and AJP Crown’s recommendation of MWDEU, and thank you both for it.

  50. jamessal says:

    If you…do acknowledge that there are other reasonable points of view here
    Of course. It’s not the point of view that bothers me but the obnoxious style of arguing. Either the guy is wholly insincere or has a childish lack of self-awareness (probably a combination). How else could he admit that our contretemps stemmed from his “failed attempt at semi-facetiousness” (for whatever that’s worth) only to then condescend in the same comment that “I am sorry if my positions on these matters are more nuanced than you’d like, and that it therefore makes it harder for you to demonize me”? I’ve had plenty of amicable disagreements over S&W and prescriptivism in general, including with the history professor I mentioned in my first comment.
    Anyway, bygones indeed! I look forward to your next comment!

  51. jamessal says:

    Yours too, Mab!

  52. SnowLeopard:The recurring bashing of S&W and its partisans with name calling and personal attacks like “And he’s one of the smart ones” and “amateurs like Whunk and Strite” may be fun for those who indulge in it, but from the outside it just sounds like you’re congratulating one another for being one of the Enlightened Elite, a political party to which I may or may not belong and among whom I may or may not be welcome. Probably neither, because I tend to miss the nuances and complexities that are lost when political lines like these get drawn and entrenched. I’m certainly curious about Pullum’s book, as I am about everything mentioned on this site and in its comments, and I’m sure Pullum and his publisher are delighted. But I do not mistake this for sound, factual, or reasoned discourse, and as far as I’m concerned, Pullum’s book will have to persuade me or not on its own merits, as I may find or overlook them for myself, not on the number of times I or someone else is called an idiot.
    What SnowLeopard said.
    Competitiveness for the sake of competitiveness does not impress me.

  53. Yeah, wait till you get your four-hundredth paper written by someone schooled by a teacher who believed S&W to be the fifth Gospel. Then you’ll understand why some of us hate it.
    If people treated it like the Style Manual it claims to be, that would be fine. But all too many don’t.

  54. marie-lucie says:

    LH: As for the Huddleston/Pullum book, I certainly wouldn’t advocate anyone but professionals buying it (sorry, Geoff)—the damn thing costs $200, and I have no intention of acquiring a copy myself.
    I am a linguist and I second LH on this. Unless you intend to devote a large part of your professional life to the study of English grammar, in which case the investment would be worth it, this book, like other reference books, is best consulted in a library.

  55. Do you know, it’s so frustrating not to be able to broadcast insults to S&Wers and S&W-haters. Really annoying. But east of the Atlantic S&W doesn’t register, you know – and yet we can’t write proper English, either, so what’s going on?
    Obviously I’m not going to chuck away 200 dollars on the Cambridge job, but is it worth me buying S&W? Just to have a way in to this daft and ill-tempered argument?

  56. There’s a very nice edition of Strunk and White that has illustrations by Maira Kalman. Let’s see if I can find it… Yes. I see it’s even in paperback. 14 used from £7.04.

  57. In the first place, I’m not at all sure, given the snarky tone of the comment, that Picky is serious. But if one wants to pick up an S&W out of curiosity, one doesn’t need a goddam illustrated edition. There must be billions of the little buggers out there; surely used copies are available for pennies.

  58. …Preferably crumpled dirty ones, you mean.
    They’re very funny. Ok, I guess I can put some of the pictures up at my new blog. There’s no reason not to buy it; I expect that Strunk and White — what with them being dead, and all — don’t profit from the purchase.

  59. Well, that’s certainly a relief. Shouldn’t we be penalising their literary executors too, though, if they’ve done as much damage to Western civilisation as I understand?
    At least we can minimise the danger if you upload the drawings, because it seems I can get one unillustrated for just three quid. Can’t wait to find out just what it is I’m so angry about.

  60. C’mon, Picky. The sarcasm is unbecoming. Is it really shocking to you that people who care about linguistics are moved to use moderately harsh language (!) on lingua blogs and in magazines about a book full of misinformation which a portion of the population reveres as the bible of grammar? Really, it’s starting to look like shtick, this What is everybody SO angry about? business.

  61. Sorry, chum. I’ll read the damn thing and let you know how unbecoming I think I am.

  62. Ok, I’ve done it. And it wasn’t simply to DOWNLOAD stuff, I had to photograph each image.

  63. jamessal says:

    I’ll read the damn thing and let you know how unbecoming I think I am.
    Sounds good. Thanks to AJP, you can at least comment on the pictures. They really grind my gears!

  64. Now that I have seen the illustrations, I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!

  65. marie-lucie says:

    For those who would be interested in Huddleston & Pullum but are daunted by the bulk and expense (currently about US$161 at Amazon), there are two more approachable paperbacks also available from Amazon:
    Huddleston & Pullum: A student’s guide to English grammar (about US$30) (based on the larger grammar)
    Huddleston: Introduction to the grammar of English (about US$43)
    Note that Huddleston is the “senior author” of Huddleston & Pullum.
    Amazon also has Strunk (without White), the original edition, for US$ 2.99. (a better book according to the Language Log crowd).

  66. Hereafter called “Puddleston” for short.

  67. Hereafter called “Puddleston” for short.

  68. There is also the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (1999, 1203 pages, corpus-based). I’ve been using it in recent months, and appreciate its catholicity, fine detail, and good order. Anyone else familiar with it? It’d be good to see some other opinions.

  69. Noetica, This Amazon customer’s review tells us something about it: If you are a teacher, student or a writer seeking guidance, this is not the book which I would suggest, as it’s really not prescriptive at all.

  70. Yes Ķřoń, I read those reviews. I was wondering if there were any observations from astute LH folk, to add to my own endorsement of this splendid grammar. I’ve had my copy for six months. I certainly didn’t want prescriptiveness, and it doesn’t give that.

  71. Your recommendation is enough for me. I may even buy it.

  72. Why would someone who is against grammar rules want to go out and buy a book that dictates grammar rules? It seems, if I can read between all the anger, that what people are angry about isn’t “prescriptiveness”. They do want a book that dictates correct usage so they can write in a conventional manner. What they’re angry about is that this book they’re all buying so they can complain about it is either incorrect or out of date.

  73. Nobody’s against grammar rules, Nij.

  74. I think you’re confusing rules (if ‘a’ occurs, then ‘b’ follows) with ‘rules’ (‘If you do that you will be punished’).

  75. I should shut up, really, because I’m still waiting for my S&W to arrive from Amazon … although, in clearing a special, rose-scented space in the shelves for the little darling, I’ve fallen across Treble and Vallins’ An ABC of English Usage (OUP, 1936 repr 1968) – anyone seen that? It’d clear your throats for a bit of invective, I’ll bet.
    Now, there may be rules you need to observe if you are to be able to take part satisfactorily in the speech community you find yourself in, or, horrors of horrors, aspire to. And, indeed, AJPC, non-acceptance in that speech community would be a sort of punishment, wouldn’t it?
    What rules? Who codifies? What reaction would such a codifier get when he has a bash at the job? Oh, for heaven’s sake, he’d be pullumed to dith, wouldn’t he? But don’t we all accept we are part of communities who speak their own special sorts of English, each with its own special set of rules?

  76. Picky, you should really lay off the addiction to straw men. Nobody (for the thousandth time) is saying there are no rules, or that it doesn’t make any difference how you speak or write, or that style guides are not useful. The problem is that S&W 1) is not a particularly accurate guide and 2) occupies far too prominent a place in the scheme of things, being mass-produced, given automatically to high-school graduates, and pushed on people as The Book. If it were better done or less culturally prominent, nobody would make an issue of it. I’m all for lively discussion and love to see my ideas intelligently countered, but you’re not getting very far by pretending people are claiming things they’re not.
    An ABC of English Usage may, for all I know, be a terrific little handbook. But if it’s not, how much damage could it be doing? I’m not about to waste my time complaining about a book known only to a few devotees.

  77. Pinky: non-acceptance in that speech community would be a sort of punishment, wouldn’t it?
    There is no greater punishment. The fundamental problem with a set of 10 commandments of English is that no one is going to enforce the laws. There isn’t even the expectation of retribution in the next world: It’s no good going to confession to say you’ve split your infinitives: nobody cares, not even God.

  78. I think you’re confusing rules (if ‘a’ occurs, then ‘b’ follows) with ‘rules’ (‘If you do that you will be punished’).
    The second possibility never occurred to me, but it should have, having just been called nine kinds of idiot on another thread for using a comma instead of a semicolon before a coordinating conjunction, and a separate kind of idiot for having an ESL background and citing Betty Azar.
    Now it appears that I am even a third kind of idiot for never having heard of this handbook that has everyone else in this little speech community foaming at the mouth. I was lulled into a false sense of security when I saw that the Amazon UK sales rank for this book was only 277,161, but now I see that over at Amazon U.S., the 50th anniversary edition has achieved #36 on their daily bestseller list. Scads of raving reviews too; not one is negative. Looks like everyone is searching for that magical gateway to Eastern Establishment usage.

  79. AJPC: Surely God is an Anglican: He believes it is proper to sometimes split an infinitive and sometimes to split it not.
    LH: I (sort of) refuse to comment on S&W until the beast is in my hands, and I wasn’t attempting an attack on anti-SWers by proxy, just being cheerfully snide about what AJP had said. The ABC reference was a vain hope that by casting the fly someone would rise to the bait. No such luck.
    I’m interested in the different reasons for hating S&W – I’ll add yours to my list; it’s somewhat different from Prof Pullum’s, I notice.
    You may possibly have already noted that I have close to zero knowledge of linguistics. I’m just stupidly fascinated by the arguments.

  80. Oh, I have no quarrel with that, and I apologize for making a straw man of you!

  81. I thought that was agnostic — Oh, right, sorry; agnostic is Anglican.
    Nij, the reason it’s 277,000th in Britain is that it’s an American usage book. If you try Amazon.de you’ll probably find they’ve never even sold a copy.

  82. marie-lucie says:

    S&W … given automatically to high-school graduates
    This reminds me of an episode of Vanity Fair (the novel): the headmistress of the school attended by Becky Sharp treats Dr Johnson’s Dictionary like a religious icon, and each graduate is ceremoniously given a copy. Becky duly receives a copy, but once in the coach taking her away from the school she flings it out of the window, to the horror of the girl travelling with her.

  83. I’d still like to know who are all these people getting the book. I’ve been to seven or eight different colleges and never heard of it. Since SW was written at Cornell, maybe it’s an east coast phenomenon?

  84. marie-lucie says:

    Hear Geoff Pullum in person:
    Today’s Language Log has two threads about the Pullum vs S&W controversy (on top of several previous ones both ancient and recent). Scroll down to “S&W on the radio” and “Pullum on Talk of the Nation” (link to the radio interview). You can judge whether he is full of “vehement animosity” or “pathologically obsessed”.

  85. On the radio, I note, he is full of the milk of human kindness.

  86. The book he recommends is Joseph Williams, Style: Towards Clarity and Grace.

  87. Well, at last … my very own copy of S&W! Goodness!! I’ve given it a first skim read.
    For info, please:
    I think I understand that it has a sort of mythic iconic status with some people, perhaps in the way Fowler MEU 1st and 2nd eds had in Britain in their day (and beyond, too). I would guess that people who never look at it from one year’s end to the next claim it to be their constant bedside companion etc etc.
    But is it actually used in schools, can anyone tell me? If so, at what age wd the kids be exposed to it? And would this be as a textbook, or as recommended reading, or teacher’s fallback, or what?

  88. It’s not used in schools. I think it’s used in colleges, to improve the writing ability of undergraduates.

  89. OK, thanks.

  90. In trepidation lest the Hatmeister strike me dead for the third offense of self-puffery, I will mention here (since it is obviously relevant) Strunk & White’s younger brother, Strunk & Cowan. The evidence-based little book!

  91. Hey, I’m happy to encourage self-puffery by actual commenters.

  92. Can I trespass for a few words having read S&W?
    Maybe I shouldn’t have got the 50th anniversary edn – all gold tooled and bound in Gnometex – but what a mess! Must have been a sturdy enough building in its time, but then White added the verandah at the back, and since then all sorts of lean-tos have appeared. I’ve got four pages of celebrity blurb; a publisher’s note; contents; foreword; introduction; then the guts of the thing; then White’s stuff; then an afterword for heaven’s sake; glossary, index. Blimey!
    It’s a moderate enough mess, I’m afraid – probably all those editions have seen its healthy forthrightness turned to faintheartedness.
    Some stern criticisms of the book prove groundless as far as this edn is concerned: the authors don’t say don’t use adjectives or adverbs, so delightedly discovering them in White’s own prose is a bit pointless; the stuff about needless words is not vapid tautology but a list of examples of how sentences can be improved; I would even extend the benefit of the doubt to the section on the active voice. It’s not that they are grammatically inept in these sections, in my view – worse than that, I’m afraid – they lack clarity.
    And for me the rules are short on explanation, background, detail, and useful context.
    So, it’s not the elegant historic relic I hoped for; nor is it an evil, nasty little mindrotter. Either would have been worth the price.
    I suppose you would have to live with the constant praise of the thing (like Tolstoy with Shakespeare) to get decently angry about it. There are better things to be angry about: like an education system that has college kids unable to write a decent essay, and that turns for a remedy to this inadequate work.

  93. Thanks for your review; I was wondering what you’d think of it. Actually, I basically agree with you; it’s not evil (though Pullum likes to talk as if it were), just undercooked and overpraised. And I very much agree with your final sentence.

  94. marie-lucie says:

    Picky, I like your review too.
    To offset the cost of purchasing S&W in this latest edition, you can get Strunk & Cowan online (see above for the link, from which you can also get the original Strunk).

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