Errors in “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White


I still have my copy of The Elements of Style from high school, and it’s probably the first book that made me excited about grammar. Their disdain for long-winded phrases and useless words delighted me. It’s a bold book. It’s concise. It was a breath of fresh air in a stuffy English-classroom. But how good is it? Is it outdated? Is it just plain wrong?

Geoffrey K. Pullum, the head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh, isn’t a fan. In his article, 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice, he tears the book apart, along with its authors:

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 article seems overly harsh, and a bit unfair. He describes some of the advice as “mostly harmless”:

Many are useless, like “Omit needless words.” (The students who know which words are needless don’t need the instruction.)

Point taken, but that’s only the heading. That section goes on to give specific advice, and tells readers to eliminate phrases such as “the question as to whether,” “he is a man who,” “the reason why is that,” and so on. But Pullum has valid complaints. When he gets to passive vs. active, he says:

Strunk and White are denigrating the passive by presenting an invented example of it deliberately designed to sound inept.

This is true, and may be a problem with many of the examples in The Elements. You can make nearly any point you want by rearranging a well-written sentence. But the problems with passive vs. active get much worse. As Pullum points out, the book gets them wrong. Here are the four examples of passive voice from The Elements. Which ones are indeed passive, if any?

  1. There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.
  2. At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard.
  3. The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired.
  4. It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had.

Only one is in passive voice—the second one. Their rewrites of these sentences may be better, but the section is about passive voice, so this is totally unacceptable. Update: commenters on other blogs have pointed out that the section in The Elements is actually titled “Use the active voice”, and that the examples show “how a transitive verb in the active voice can improve a sentence.” The commenters are right. The section is not technically about passive voice (though the beginning discusses it), and Strunk and White do not claim the examples are passive—but you can see how easy it is to miss that detail, as so many people have (Pullum pointed out how those examples are all over the web, listed as passive). Strunk and White may not be wrong, but they’ve at least broken their style rule 16: “Be clear.”

What’s wrong is that 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.

This is something I noticed while recently rereading¬†The Elements. The old adage, “you need to learn the rules to know when to break them” applies, but many of the sentences are weaker and less clear because of it.

“Keep related words together” is further explained in these terms: “The subject of a sentence and the principal verb should not, as a rule, be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning.” That is a negative passive, containing an adjective, with the subject separated from the principal verb by a phrase (“as a rule”) that could easily have been transferred to the beginning. Another quadruple violation.

They literally break the rule while discussing it. Pullum loses me near the end with this, however:

Simple experiments (which students could perform for themselves using downloaded classic texts from sources like http://gutenberg.org) show that Strunk and White preferred to base their grammar claims on intuition and prejudice rather than established literary usage.

It’s true that established usage is important and relevant, but simply searching old fiction books is not compelling research. Are the examples from dialogue? Are those writers perfect? Have the rules changed since then? Surely there are common usages that Pullum would love to rid the world of, and that’s kind of how I think of The Elements. (What do you think? Is it still valuable as a reference? Let me know in the comments.)

The article is definitely worth reading, especially if you have read or will read The Elements of Style. It’s a good reminder not to put too much trust in any one source. Whoops, I just broke the “put statements in positive form” rule. Um…it’s a good reminder to distrust every single…wait, it’s a good reminder to always trust multiple…oh, !@#$ it.