THE DEAD HAND OF STRUNK.

A reader who apparently felt my blood pressure needed raising sent me a link to this egregious piece of idiocy by The Washington Post‘s reviewer Jonathan Yardley, who has apparently carried around a battered first edition of The Elements of Style since 1959 and uses it to attack writers for what he calls “sloppy habits” but what the rest of us consider normal use of the English language. A devotion to Strunk & White is a sure sign of proud ignorance; I lambasted it a few years ago, quoting the wonderful Jan Freeman in extenso (take that, Yardley and your Strunkian “Avoid foreign languages”!), and I am pleased to be able to refer to her again on this occasion, since she has written a response called “Return of the living dead” that explains a few of the problems with both the “little book” and Yardley’s misunderstandings, ending up by saying, quite correctly, that “treating Elements as a bible of good usage is literally laughable.” And since laughter is the best medicine, I will try to laugh rather than rend my hair the next time I encounter a paean to the malign little compendium of bad advice.

Comments

  1. A particular bugaboo of my own is the use of “like” for “as,” which is now near-universal and is almost always wrong:
    (The boy stood on the burning deck, when all but he had fled)
    Perhaps the dodo can live again. Perhaps ‘thou’ can be revived.
    The thing that really baffles me, though, is the use of examples that don’t support the rule. ‘Four score and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation’ – had Lincoln written with benefit of S&W he would have seen at a glance that ’87 years ago’ would be a decided improvement. (‘Vigorous writing is concise.’) He would also have spotted that ‘we can not consecrate — we can not hallow’ is somewhat redundant. (Has JY ever actually read the Gettysburg Address?)

  2. Helen, you’re overlooking one of the most fundamental elements of style: it’s wrong unless a Great Personage does it. :)

  3. Pullum referred us to Freeman, too.
    Even otherwise reasonable people get Frankenstrunk. (Context here.)

  4. ‘Four score and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation’ – had Lincoln written with benefit of S&W he would have seen at a glance that ’87 years ago’ would be a decided improvement.
    The argument in full:http://bulbulovo.blogspot.com/search?q=lincoln

  5. “in extenso (take that, Yardley and your Strunkian “Avoid foreign languages”!)”: well, Latin may be foreign for you Yanks, but it was spoken in the British Isles long before English was.

  6. Recte dicis!

  7. David Marjanović says:

    Jan is a she?!?

  8. هذا مِشْ كويس

  9. I’ve never read Strunk, and so I was unaware of his dictum about avoiding foreign languages. Were that rule to be vigorously applied here in NZ, it would create real problems. One of the features that distinguishes NZ English from Aus English is its use of Maaori words, Not only is the number of Maoori loanwords increasing, but so is the tendency to preserve Maoori usage in NZ English. How would Strunk have coped with NZ English’s preference for not adding an English plural marker to words adopted from Maaori, like “kiwi” when used of the bird? “Kia ora from New Zealand, a land of four million Kiwis and only sixty thousand kiwi” would apparently have induced apoplexy in the poor man. Perhaps the jury’s still out on the deirability of such an outcome.

  10. Please, children, calm down. The admonition is to prefer the commonly understood usage. It was not ever a call to racist arms.he love of god people. you’re bring stupid to a whole new level

  11. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    I bought a lovely edition of The Elements of Style a little while ago, illustrated by Maira Kalman. The illustrations have tangential connections to the text, as you might expect from Maira Kalman.
    I do love Charlotte’s Web. Stuart Little, although not a great book has a casual creepyness to it (I’m sure it was intended) that would be hard to equal.

  12. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Either times have really changed or it takes a lot of confidence to use a phrase like ‘four score and seven years ago’. It took me a while before I added it up and realised that he was talking about a mere 87 years.

  13. Am I bring stupid to a whole new level too?

  14. I don’t understand the hatred being expressed here.
    As a teenager, I used Strunk & White in conjunction with a reading of the literary canon to give me the background to understand his ideas in context. The usefulness of the little book was to fix a couple of common errors I’d been making, and to make me think more about the effect of my sentences.
    Of course, you can be a fundamentalist about the book, but let’s not confuse the results of fundamentalist thinking with what I think is a pleasant little starter’s guide to style.

  15. Shouldn’t that be “dead horse?”

  16. If only it was marketed and used as “a pleasant little starter’s guide to style” we probably wouldn’t hate it.

  17. What The Ridger said (although if it were so marketed, we’d probably never have heard of it). Here’s a sample quote from Sili’s “here” link: “Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style… is simply put the foundation of modern grammar.” That’s so stupid and wrong it makes me froth, and it’s not an isolated bit of excess—that’s how its acolytes routinely talk about it. S&W has nothing to do with grammar; it’s a collection of style advice, some of it sensible and some of it utterly wrong. It should have been a season’s fad, like that stupid Truss book about shoots and leaves; instead, it’s pulled the wool over the eyes of generations of literate people and aided and abetted whatever tendencies they had toward snotty superiority. We hates it, we does.

  18. Richard Hershberger says:

    To expand on LH, I think a large part of the appeal of S&W is that it does contain some genuinely good style advice, particularly when it isn’t taken as gospel. All else being equal, concise is better than wordy. As basic advice, this is pretty good. But all else is not always equal, and knowing the difference is a huge part of good writing. S&W won’t help you with this. For “a pleasant little starter’s guide to style” that is fine. For “the foundation of modern grammar” it is not. So we get people obsessing on how to make a text a few letters shorter, because S&W tell us to.
    Add to this that, unlike a usage manual, S&W give positive advice. A usage manual tends to be discouragingly negative, constantly warning of pitfalls to avoid. S&W provides help with what to do, not just with what to avoid. Cap this with the fact that it is short, making it easy to digest.
    There are two problems with S&W. One is the “foundation of modern grammar” idolatry. This isn’t S&W’s fault, but it is impossible to separate from any discussion of their book. The other is that the good advice in the book is intermingled with bad advice. This bad advice has S&W’s imprimatur, giving it special status and making it that much harder to eradicate.
    The Ridger’s comment is very apt. If it were marketed more moderately, it would be just one among many such books containing a mix of good and bad advice and it would be no big deal. Its elevated status is why we care.
    This is somewhat like Wikipedia. If Wikipedia were marketed as the internet’s biggest and best trivia site, we would all stand back and admire just how astoundingly good a trivia site it is. But it is marketed as an encyclopedia, so we (some of us, at least) recoil and comment on its failings as an encyclopdia.

  19. That’s all well and good, Hat and Hershberger, but for me it’s the font. I just fucking hate it.

  20. “Latin may be foreign for you Yanks, but it was spoken in the British Isles long before English was. ”
    Dear, I hear that that has been debunked, that the ancestor(s) of English was/were on the island before the Saxons showed up and settled in the east. One supposed indicator is that there is no national immigration/settlement myth – Hengest and Horsa don’t resonate in the public awareness because it was never valid for most people in the first place. The rest of this was that the tribal elites in the area that has become England spoke Celtic, and that is what the Romans considered the language of the tribes, so it wasn’t that the Saxons changed the lanaguage of the whole population, just decapitated society and wiped out the language of those elites. Anyway, does anyone have any more on this or care to comment?

  21. The boy stood on the burning deck,
    WHENCE all but he had fled …”
    ..while we’re at it.
    LH: I hope the blood pressure had subsided – it wasn’t intentional !

  22. Crown, A.J.P., C.B. says:

    …If Wikipedia were marketed as the internet’s biggest and best trivia site…
    My god, WHAT a snobbish and shortsighted remark! If you’re looking for information wiki will give you the best start on where to find it, and you should look at the philosophy section before you call it a trivia site.
    we (some of us, at least) recoil
    Wiki has changed for the better the way some of us, at least, work. Apart from the 1911 Britannica, I wouldn’t give an encyclopedia houseroom.

  23. @Jim: anent early British speakers of Eye-tie and Kraut. It may be that you have in mind Oppenheimer’s book “The Origins of the British”, a super read that does advance the propositition you refer to. But it is the least persuasive thing in the book, not least because his argument is almost completely undermined by his Fig 2.1b (bless him for his honesty in reporting contrary data, unlike – for example – some global warmmongers I could mention). This map of “percentages of ancient place-names that were celtic” shows a greater concentration in just those parts of Britain where he had been arguing that the natives German spoke. Splat!

  24. That is a fly in that ointment alright. I think a lot of the argument had to do with big disconnects between AS and English, that make it look like the ancestor of English was related but not identical to AS, and then also the lack of physical evidence for a big replacement of population or culture from the continent.
    How much would a big replacement of population fomr the continent show up? It’s one thing to find Spanish genes in Mexico; how are you going to identify the same kind of thing in so small an area as Britain and the North Sea littoral?
    I am more interested in the disconnects in the devlopment of the language anyway.

  25. Richard Hershberger says:

    “If you’re looking for information wiki will give you the best start on where to find it, and you should look at the philosophy section before you call it a trivia site.”
    It depends on the sort of information you are looking for. Wikipedia is very good at discrete facts: the population of Oshkosh, Wisconsin; the birthplace of Isaac Newton; the displacement of the USS New Jersey; etc. I am not married to the characterization “trivia” but I’ve not seen a better alternative.
    What it is poor at is coherent analysis: discussions with a beginning, a middle, and an end, written in paragraphs moving from one thought to the next. There are some individual articles that achieve this happy state, but there are innumerable others that cannot manage to avoid self-contradiction from one sentence to the next. Why anyone would expect otherwise is beyond me. It is edited by committee. Worse, it is a committee with no chairman, consisting of anyone who cares to drop in, and in which a motion to adjourn is never in order.
    I am not qualified to judge the articles on philosophy. It is entirely possible that they are excellent. There certainly are areas where some capable writer qualified to discuss the subject takes it upon himself to produce quality articles and to defend them from helpful bystanders. There are, however, a handful of corners of human knowledge were I am qualified to judge. Early baseball history is an example. The articles in that field range from midling through simply wrong to utter gibberish.
    Cue the inevitable dreary round of people telling me that I should go fix it. This is beside the point. I also prefer to write on the subject and deal with a single editor, who is actually qualified. The idea of having to constantly go back and repair an article really does not tempt me.
    I am not a fan of the Britannica format from the 1970s, but the older editions were very good at what they did. For example, the article on heraldry was written by a top scholar of the subject. It was well-written and accurate for the state of knowledge at the time. It is dated now, but is still stands up well so long as one keeps the date of writing in mind.
    My point about Wikipedia is that this sort of article is not what Wikipedia does well. It is, however, what a good encyclopedia does well. My problem with Wikipedia is mostly in the marketing. If they are going to call themselves an encyclopedia, I am going to observe that it isn’t a good one. If they called themselves something else, it would be a different matter.

  26. Not weighing in one way or another, but this is a fun piece:
    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21131

  27. A.J.P. Creepy says:

    That’s an interesting article. Thanksjamessal.
    I once tried to revise something in the Norwegian Wiki, an article about a quite powerful oldish Norwegian right-wing politician who sometimes claims that at the age of 26 he was a director of Tate & Lyle, the big British sugar company. I’m pretty sure it’s untrue, but not only was this alleged 2-year sojourn at Tate & Lyle immediately reinstated after I removed it from the man’s c.v., but the arbiters of Norwegian wiki things also erased all trace of my explanatory comment from the discussion page. To Glyn, who on another post was asking what creepy means, this is an example of creepy.

  28. A.J.P. Taylor says:

    The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is a good encyclopedia-like series of volumes — very interesting, actually. It was begun by Virginia Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen. Now it’s all online, of course, and you can lean on your public library to get access.

  29. A curious detail in jamessal’s article on Wiki:
    “Sometimes Broughton sounds like a freshman English comp teacher, a little too sure that there is one right and wrong way to do things: Strunk without White.”

  30. John Emerson says:

    Wiki is for me an indispensable tool, not quite an encyclopedia but much more than a trivia site. To me it’s the first place to look, and it often guides me to a better source.
    I once spent an hour or so checking on five or six rather obscure topics I’m knowledgeable but not expert on: the Khazars, the Volga Bulgars, the Kushans, the Qarakitai, and the Caucasian Albanians, as I remember. One or two I learned something from, one was on I topic I studied recently and was as good as is possible at the present time, and I saw areas needing improvement in two. None were so bad that I wouldn’t recommend them to someone, and all had useful bibliographies.
    One thing Wiki can’t be is an authority, but using encyclopedias as authorities gets you out and F in most colleges. You have to know what problems to look for: nationalistic and ideological biases and struggles, garbled articles by competing editors, and stub articles that are too rudimentary.
    The best trivia I found was a list of the names of the noble families of Sweden, almost none of which are named Johnson or Larson or Olson or Swenson or Anderson are anything like that.

  31. John Emerson says:

    Wiki is for me an indispensable tool, not quite an encyclopedia but much more than a trivia site. To me it’s the first place to look, and it often guides me to a better source.
    I once spent an hour or so checking on five or six rather obscure topics I’m knowledgeable but not expert on: the Khazars, the Volga Bulgars, the Kushans, the Qarakitai, and the Caucasian Albanians, as I remember. One or two I learned something from, one was on I topic I studied recently and was as good as is possible at the present time, and I saw areas needing improvement in two. None were so bad that I wouldn’t recommend them to someone, and all had useful bibliographies.
    One thing Wiki can’t be is an authority, but using encyclopedias as authorities gets you out and F in most colleges. You have to know what problems to look for: nationalistic and ideological biases and struggles, garbled articles by competing editors, and stub articles that are too rudimentary.
    The best trivia I found was a list of the names of the noble families of Sweden, almost none of which are named Johnson or Larson or Olson or Swenson or Anderson are anything like that.

  32. John Emerson says:

    “gets you an F”

  33. John Emerson says:

    “gets you an F”

  34. Crown, A.J.P., K.C.B. says:

    The best trivia I found was a list of the names of the noble families of Sweden
    I don’t think it’s trivial, it’s just not connected with what you otherwise would have been doing. It will come in useful.

  35. “gets you an F”
    Most college students nowadays would never think to use a “real” encyclopedia, anyway, and have to be told what’s wrong with using wikipedia as an authority.
    I’m not sure I’m old enough to be playing “kids nowadays,” but there it is, after just a few years of TA-ing. Some of my colleagues have nobly encouraged students to write or edit entries related to class topics, which has the benefit of giving them an idea of just who might be responsible for the things they’re reading. (But then I also know some people who do wiki editing who are real experts.)
    “Wiki is for me an indispensable tool, not quite an encyclopedia but much more than a trivia site. To me it’s the first place to look, and it often guides me to a better source.” Hear, hear.

  36. Avoid foreign languages
    …but Navajo, Kiowa, Lakota, and Cherokee are fine.

  37. I’m pretty sure it’s untrue, but not only was this alleged 2-year sojourn at Tate & Lyle immediately reinstated after I removed it from the man’s c.v., but the arbiters of Norwegian wiki things also erased all trace of my explanatory comment from the discussion page. To Glyn, who on another post was asking what creepy means, this is an example of creepy.
    It is told even on Wikipedia’s “Why Wiki is not so great” page, that small-language Wikipedias can be, and are sometimes, infiltrated by extremist boarding parties. This is why the big-language Wikipedias are to be preferred as sources of unbiased information – in the English Wikipedia, biases more or less iron out each other.
    Personally, I am an active contributor to the Irish-language Wikipedia, but I often ask myself why I bother at all. I am practically the only person there who is able to write a stylistically and grammatically tolerable Irish, and the result is that there is a handful of articles which I have edited, and which are readable Irish, and lots of crap which pretends to be Irish, but which is on the level of completely ungrammatical crap produced by a poor devil struggling with a dictionary (sorry for the brutal language, but this can’t be put in milder terms).

  38. Yes. whence all but he had fled. Never comment on a blog while composing ad for sublet on Craiglist. It’s all too much.
    On the subject of Wikipedia, I saw some errors in the article they had written about me (they had used pieces in the press by journalists who had relied on hearsay rather than talking to me), tried to correct them and had the corrections removed. Anything that had appeared in the press counted as a reliable source. The source the press should have talked to didn’t.

  39. Yes, that’s one big problem with Wikipedia; reliance on published sources is obviously an excellent general principle, but to let it trump the horse’s mouth (er, just a façon de dire there, no offense) is madness.

  40. A.J.P. Crown says:

    One of those famous people like Angelina Jolie or someone said that she never corrected anything in her wiki entry, because that then implied that everything else that she’d left alone must be true. There’s no entry on the King of Mars, yet.

  41. marie-lucie says:

    Wikipedia does not always rely on published sources. I have seen a number of cases of unsupported assertions (not necessary wrong, but unsupported) in searching for poorly known languages.
    About entries about people: I have found at least one person who I am almost certain wrote their own entry.

  42. David Marjanović says:

    This is somewhat like Wikipedia. If Wikipedia were marketed as the internet’s biggest and best trivia site, we would all stand back and admire just how astoundingly good a trivia site it is. But it is marketed as an encyclopedia, so we (some of us, at least) recoil and comment on its failings as an encyclopdia.

    Wikipedia is very heterogenous. On some topics it does surpass all dead-tree encyclopedias, sometimes by far.

    I hear that that has been debunked, that the ancestor(s) of English was/were on the island before the Saxons showed up and settled in the east. One supposed indicator is that there is no national immigration/settlement myth – Hengest and Horsa don’t resonate in the public awareness because it was never valid for most people in the first place.

    Well, there is not the slightest trace of an immigration myth concerning the Baiuvarian immigration to Austria from Bavaria, or even from allegedly somewhere around the Elbe to Bavaria. Admittedly no sea is involved here, though.
    On the other hand, Hengist & Horsa were heathens. Who cares about a bunch of heathen ancestors when you’ve got the Venerable Bede?

    Anyway, does anyone have any more on this or care to comment?

    For a start, the number of Celtic words in English is around ten…

    big disconnects between AS and English, that make it look like the ancestor of English was related but not identical to AS

    Basically, the Vikings came and hacked your grammar to pieces. There’s a quite convincing paper on this in a recent issue of Diachronica.

    but the arbiters of Norwegian wiki things also erased all trace of my explanatory comment from the discussion page.

    Wow. That’s incredible.
    That said, instead of removing the doubtful mention, wouldn’t it have been enough to slap “citation needed” on it, which (in the English version anyway) leads to a bot flagging the whole article as doubtful?

  43. John Emerson says:

    Kron, you must have designs on the Swedish Princesses, or on Baroness Maggie Gyllenhaal. I weep for the little fast-depreciating Kroner.
    In any case, occasional Hat commenter Desbladet will fight you to the death for the favors of the Swedish princessen.
    Scarlet Johanssen is a commoner, as her name indicates.

  44. John Emerson says:

    Kron, you must have designs on the Swedish Princesses, or on Baroness Maggie Gyllenhaal. I weep for the little fast-depreciating Kroner.
    In any case, occasional Hat commenter Desbladet will fight you to the death for the favors of the Swedish princessen.
    Scarlet Johanssen is a commoner, as her name indicates.

  45. John Emerson says:

    Desbladet reports that Dutch Limburg and Belgian Limburg are talking about seceding from their respective countries and joining into Greater Limburg.
    You heard it here first, unless you read Desbladet. My own opinion is that Luxemburg will feel threatened by this, and will bring its powerful forces to bear to prevent it.

  46. John Emerson says:

    Desbladet reports that Dutch Limburg and Belgian Limburg are talking about seceding from their respective countries and joining into Greater Limburg.
    You heard it here first, unless you read Desbladet. My own opinion is that Luxemburg will feel threatened by this, and will bring its powerful forces to bear to prevent it.

  47. John: I hope the Barle-Nassau enclaves join the movement …
    http://ontology.buffalo.edu/smith/baarle.htm
    … just to complicate things further.

  48. John: if the Limbos take Geert Wilders with them, the secession will be worth it.

  49. John Emerson says:

    Wilders is a serious threat: the Dutch must never be allowed to rearm. We all know what happened after Hitler was allowed to re-militarize the Rhineland in 1933.
    To me it makes more sense for united Barle-Nassau to form a separate nation, however, rather than to join with Limburg, in order to preserve the unique native culture: the colorful costumes, the pork-onion beer, the mud dance, and the famous tobacco pastry. But Barle-Nassau also should never be allowed to rearm. History tells us what that would lead to.

  50. John Emerson says:

    Wilders is a serious threat: the Dutch must never be allowed to rearm. We all know what happened after Hitler was allowed to re-militarize the Rhineland in 1933.
    To me it makes more sense for united Barle-Nassau to form a separate nation, however, rather than to join with Limburg, in order to preserve the unique native culture: the colorful costumes, the pork-onion beer, the mud dance, and the famous tobacco pastry. But Barle-Nassau also should never be allowed to rearm. History tells us what that would lead to.

  51. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    John: Scarlet Johanssen is a commoner, as her name indicates
    I thought scarlet (except in the scarlet women sense, obviously) was royal, or is that only purple?

  52. Oh God, David, you’re probably right; but the idea of diving back into the Norsk Tate & Lile saga is too depressing to contemplate.

  53. Krown, A.J.P. says:

    I know you and cheese, John Emerson. All you’re really worrying about is what will happen to the cheese if there’s a war. By the way, do Belgium or Luxembourg have national cheeses, or indeed any native cheese? Norway is well provided for in case of war: it has Jarlsburg, as well as all the brown goat cheeses and some powerfully smelly cheeses like pultost and gamelost.

  54. John Emerson says:

    The Johanssons are uppity commoners, Kron. In the old days the lovely, presumptuous Scarlett would have been boleyned for her effrontry.
    David Weman, who seldom comments here, has promised to get me some of the famous Swedish fermented fish, which you’re supposed to eat in a deserted open-air location while a strong wind is blowing.
    American Muenster is very disappointing, without the aroma of real Muenster.

  55. John Emerson says:

    The Johanssons are uppity commoners, Kron. In the old days the lovely, presumptuous Scarlett would have been boleyned for her effrontry.
    David Weman, who seldom comments here, has promised to get me some of the famous Swedish fermented fish, which you’re supposed to eat in a deserted open-air location while a strong wind is blowing.
    American Muenster is very disappointing, without the aroma of real Muenster.

  56. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    We have it too. Rakørret. I may have spelled it wrong, but it’s a sharp and smelly trout, I’ll send you some. I’m not sure when the season is (I think it’s seasonal). We get it from my father-in-law. It’s an unusual taste. I think gravlaks must be the same principle; that’s my all time favorite.

  57. Let us not forget the hideously effective gjetost.

  58. We have three gjeits ourselves, except not for milking. They’re angora goats with mohair coats that we unravel off their backs twice a year.

  59. John Emerson says:

    Presumably the Kronen in their colorful costumes are preparing to migrate to the winter pastures as we speak.

  60. John Emerson says:

    Presumably the Kronen in their colorful costumes are preparing to migrate to the winter pastures as we speak.

  61. John Emerson says:

    Or is that “Kroner”? Damn.

  62. John Emerson says:

    Or is that “Kroner”? Damn.

  63. I just say krons. They understand.

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