I was reading the comments on this answer where several users claimed that Strunk & White's "Elements of Style" was "misinformed, hypocritical, and wrong" and "flat-out wrong or totally misleading" so I'd love to get a delineated list of where it is wrong (note: I have no position on this or axe to grind, I've just used it for years and would love to learn what I've been doing wrong thanks to it.)
[Edit: I never intended or expected this answer to be voted so high, so I didn't bother stating up-front the bleeding obvious: that if you suffer from the delusion that The Elements of Style is a book of grammar rules rather than a book about two guys' preferences, well, you're wrong. For a tedious list of rules in the book that aren't grammar rules, see (thanks to Robert Bixler's answer) this article by Pullum which a slightly better version of that silly rant. Of course I strongly disagree with the tone of the essay, its false claims about the book, its idea that the faults of the American education system can be blamed on a single book, and its insinuations about the authors' character (seriously!), for which see the rest of this answer.]
[Preliminary note: the first edition (1918) by Strunk is available online, so you can read the book and judge for yourselves. It's a short book, with mostly sound advice, worth reading once. It's terse and concise.]
Frankly, there's not all that much wrong with the book. And except for a few people like Pullum (the linguist and author of that rant), the book is still beloved by most, and is recommended by writers across the spectrum from Stephen King to Steven Pinker. But it is important to understand what the book is and isn't.
Most importantly, it's a style guide, not a grammar textbook or reference. The authors do not claim to teach grammar; the book should not be used to learn grammar. They make absolutely no claims about English syntax, but at best about what sounds good style to them. The very fact that some issue is a matter of style implies that there are multiple alternatives that are perfectly grammatical and in use, even by great writers. It is the job of the authors of a style guide to recommend one alternative over others; the book is supposed to be opinionated. Indeed, White's introduction to the book even says
So of course the book is idiosyncratic; that's one of the endearing things about it. Pullum seems to have confused it for a book on grammar — odd, since he wrote an excellent grammar book and knows what they look like.
With a book like this, it's implicit that you, the reader, must consider each element of style advice as the opinion of the author, not follow it blindly, and use your own good sense and examples from good writing. If you find that your considered opinion on something they advocate is different, you just ignore the advice and move on — at least it has made you think. The function of the style guide is to draw your attention to these matters of style, so whenever you are about to use of the constructions mentioned, you can consider both what you wrote and the alternative, and pick whatever sounds better. (So hypothetically, even a book that inverted all the rules would still be quite useful, since it would draw attention to the same matters.) Accordingly, Strunk and White freely violate their advice whenever an alternative is better, as all good writers do, and as the reader is expected to do. Instead of seeing them as setting an example, Pullum calls the authors "hypocritical" for "flaunting the fact that the rules don't apply to them".
[More generally, his unjustified annoyance with the book seems to arise from his rabid intolerance for anyone stating a "rule" based on their preference unless it's already a rule of grammar... in which case they wouldn't need to state the rule at all, would they? :-) Elsewhere, he has written another rant on George Orwell's famous essay Politics and the English Language, again over-obsessing on just one of Orwell's rules, his one against cliches: "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print." He needlessly points out the obvious fact that this is often infeasible and that Orwell violated his rule, and calls the essay "dishonest and stupid".]
"limp platitudes" and vacuous advice?
The majority of the book, and certainly the most memorable part, deals with those vague little things that make up "style": "Use definite, specific, concrete language", "Omit needless words", "Keep related words together", "Do not overstate", and, most ineffable of all, "Be clear". These are all followed by a little explanation that is generally good, but ultimately, you just have to keep the principles in mind. These "limp platitudes" (so called by Pullum) have in fact been the most useful parts of the book to most writers; even one of the writers allegedly criticizing the book (though I'll note that besides Pullum they all say it's a useful book, just misapplied and overrated) says:
Now for a few specific points from Pullum's rant:
"Use the active voice"
Strunk & White advocate using the active voice. This obviously doesn't mean anything as silly as the idea that they want to rid the English language of the passive voice. The passive voice is often a better choice as S&W say themselves, but the point they make — that the active voice is generally more direct and vigorous, and that direct and vigorous writing is generally preferable — is true. In fact, if you look, their advice is quite qualified: here's a passage from Pullum's rant itself:
Indeed they do. Pullum then goes to falsely claim that they misidentify the passive voice three out of four times. But they do nothing of the sort; what they give are not examples of passive usage, but examples of how transitive verbs in the active voice can be used:
Here, as they say, they are giving (good) examples of how active transitive verbs can make sentences more forceful (or Strunk's strangely preferred "forcible"). This has nothing to do with the grammatical categories of active and passive voice of course, but as this is not a grammar textbook, and as stylistically this is the same thing of making sentences more direct, this is the logical place to put it in this famously terse book. It should be obvious that they aren't giving four examples of converting a sentence from passive voice to active voice. (Why would you expect them to do such a thing? Is this a grammar textbook for children? It is obvious that they assume the reader knows what the active and passive voice are; it probably never occurred to Strunk that someone who does not know may read his "little book".) The structure of the section is clear: first they say why the active voice is often preferable, then they show when it is not, then they move on to other related matters. They wouldn't have returned to harp on the first point again.
"None of us", "that-which"
Pullum claims that S&W claim that "None of us are perfect" is a grammar mistake. Of course, since it's not a grammar book and they do not claim of anything in the book that it's a grammatical mistake, Pullum's claim is trivially false. (Indeed their only pronouncements explicitly on grammar seem to be to say that something is grammatical: they say of "A group of us taxpayers protested" that "The wording, although grammatically defensible, is rarely apt", and elsewhere, "There is nothing wrong with the grammar...") But I'll go further and note this on their section about "none":
(This is kind of tautologous anyway; none suggests a plural when used with "are".)
Similarly, of "which" and "that" — a tiny note in a section on misused words — what they say is (bolding mine):
So you see they're expressing a view (idiosyncratic, if you like) not on right and wrong, but on what would be "convenient to all" because of "precision" (a dream of keeping words separate, against the tide of usage). Showing, as Pullum does, that "which" is common for restrictive clauses in written and spoken language only reiterates what they already said. (The breed of anti-prescriptivist linguists from which Pullum comes seems to hold that no one ought to express a preference about language, just accept established usage.)
Admittedly, parts of the book are outdated — some of what sounded better in 1918 sounds worse in 2010, and the book hasn't everywhere caught up. Ideally, another book dispensing the kind of style advice for which S&W is noted would take its place, the kind of advice on composition that goes beyond mere grammar or Chicago Manual of Style advice — but none of its critics appear to have made recommendations (that I'm aware of); the book is still useful. Now, there is a lot of valid criticism to be made about the book being handed out with "follow these [blindly]", its tips being treated as inviolable rules, producing "nervous cluelessness" in students about grammar, about Microsoft Word highlighting every use of the passive or nonrestrictive which as a grammar mistake, and so on and on. Apparently, in the United States, this quirky little book has become "the primary vehicle through which grammar was taught to college students and presented to the general public". While I recoil in horror at such lunacy (if such a thing is indeed true), all of these seem failures of the education system to me. Blaming such misuse on the book itself, and calling its authors an assortment of names ("bumblers", "incompetents", etc.) names is just mean-spirited.
I do not have much to add here that has not already been stated besides another link in the vein of Ex-user's contribution.
On that page, number 240 is the article. It seems to be a slightly more comprehensive argument than the one previously linked.
Based on my observation of the dialogue concerning Elements of Style and its criticism:
I think that Pullum may in fact, as Shreevatsa has suggested, be a bit too critical of Elements, but I think that he has a valid reason for his anger, even if his response may be a bit disproportionate. Elements should not be taught as an authority on grammar in college. Pullum is against people misinterpreting Elements and using it as a grammar guide as opposed to a style guide, and I am sure this can happen all to easily. Elements is a style guide, not a grammar guide, and it is because of the tendency to use it as a grammar guide that Pullum dislikes it.
Pullum understands that Elements is a style guide and he draws issue with the people who use it as a grammar guide, which I think some of his detractors fail to realize.
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In the spirit of answering the original question the way he wanted it to be answered, I will summarize the grammar points of Pullum’s essay:
Elements strongly advises against the passive voice. Pullum has two objections to this: (1) in many cases the passive voice really is superior to the active voice and so a general rule to err on the side of the active voice is ill-advised and (2) Elements (shockingly, in my opinion) misidentifies the passive voice in several example sentences, leading generations of people to be unable to correctly identify the passive voice. What he really objects to, though, is the fact that many writing tutors and teachers ignore the moderation they add that “that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice” which is “frequently convenient and sometimes necessary”, and simply put wholesale bans on the passive voice.
Elements says split infinitives “should be avoided unless the writer wishes to place unusual stress on the adverb”. Pullum objects to this because there is no reason to avoid splitting infinitives, and furthermore, putting adverbs between to and the verb actually de-emphasizes the adverb. So the advice is bad and the exception is incorrect.
Verb agreement with none
Elements says “With none, use the singular verb when the word means ‘no one’ or ‘not one’”. Pullum then gives several examples of how none often takes a plural verb from significant literary works contemporaneous with the publication of Elements. The claim that none with a plural verb is ungrammatical is flat-out wrong.
Elements says a sentence should not begin with however in its connective adverb sense (“when the meaning is ‘nevertheless’”), but this restriction is simply invented, and Pullum says “good authors alternate between placing the adverb first and placing it after the subject” and “The evidence cannot possibly support a claim that however at the beginning of a sentence should be eschewed. Strunk and White are just wrong about the facts of English syntax.”
Relative clause subordinators which and that
Elements says that restrictive relative clauses must never be introduced with which, which Pullum objects to: “There was never a period in the history of English when which at the beginning of a restrictive relative clause was an error”.
Pullum concludes with the idea that Elements’ popularity has led to “a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write however or than me or was or which, but can’t tell you why”, and that the syntactic wrongness and lack of evidence-based advice makes it an “overopinionated and underinformed little book that put so many people in this unhappy state of grammatical angst.”
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Full disclosure up front:
With that out of the way, here are my two cents.
This whole discussion boils down to one simple question: Which references should we be using to back up advice provided on this site? To me, the answer is startlingly obvious: there are numerous resources that are considered authoritative by both sides of the debate at hand. Whether or not a particular user agrees with S&W, they certainly won't mind if we instead refer to The Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam-Webster, The Oxford English Dictionary, or The Corpus of Contemporary American English, to name but a few.
Really, this question belongs on meta. It should be noted that the original comment quoted by the OP in his very first sentence is from meta. This follow-up question should be migrated there.
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I apologize if this is more a commentary than an answer to the original question; there is not room in the comments. I'll be neither surprised or offended if I get negative votes.
We've been told that The Elements of Style has been “Roundly criticized by academic linguists” (plural), and that much of its content is “flat-out wrong or totally misleading”, but not one example has been given, and the only reference presented so far is the essay by Mr. Pullum. That reference demands a response, and since the actual students of language here have not chimed in, I feel I must say something.
I have only a Third Edition of The Elements of Style. I do not have easy access to the original and other versions as Mr. Pullum does. I majored in sciences, not English, and have no training in grammar beyond high school many decades ago.
While I am not qualified to enumerate the grammatical errors in The Elements of Style, it appears to me that the criticisms are overblown, given that the operative word in the title is “Style”, not “Grammar”. When this small book for students in need of writing guidance was published there apparently was no similarly concise grammar reference. Guidelines of essential grammar were therefor included, but make up only the first brief chapter out of five – about 1/6th of the total pages in the book.
Since the mid 1980s there has been an Elements of Grammar. For advice on style, The Elements of Style is useful. For rules of Grammar The Elements of Grammar might be more appropriate.
Although not qualified as an expert judge of the grammatical advice in The Elements of Style, I do feel qualified to analyze Mr. Pullum's essay.
Pullum's stated thesis appears to be that a) Strunk and White don't understand grammar and b) their advice on using it is incorrect. He then proceeds to criticize the book's advice on style, rather than grammar, and towards the end of his piece criticizes the book for not following its (supposedly incorrect) advice.
Many of Mr. Pullum's criticisms fail when taken in context.
Pullum devotes four paragraphs to discussing the stylistic implications of using the passive voice, then finally gives three examples of an incorrect identification of the passive voice. These are the only mention of actual errors in grammar I find in his complaint against S&W.
He says that “writing tutors” ignore S&W's balancing moderation, then blames S&W rather than those tutors. Then, after raving for four paragraphs, he lets us know he's not really concerned about that. Perhaps he could have spared us.
He cites the works of authors who were both popular in the days of Strunk and who remain esteemed today, to show that S&W “base their grammar claims on intuition and prejudice rather than established literary usage”.
This point is worth considering, but if “literary usage” is indeed the final arbitrator, perhaps we don't need The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Geoffrey K. 'no axe to grind' Pullum, 2002) any more than we need The Elements of Style. The Elements of Style at least notes that “language is perpetually in flux” and (in my 1979 edition) “by the time this paragraph sees print, uptight, ripoff, rap, dude, vibes, copout, and funky will be the words of yesteryear”. (Hey, Dude, they got a few of 'em right!)
We novices are well advised to pay close attention to established usage to avoid jarring the reader and distracting from our message. Those writers whose work is still popular after a century did not achieve their greatness by slavish attention to “the rules of grammar” - the servant rather than the overseer of effective communication.
After further fault finding with S&W's advice on style (still not grammar), and for the book's failing to follow its own advice, Pullum then says “The book's contempt for its own grammatical dictates seems almost willful” but “I'm not nitpicking the authors' writing style”.
I believe the spirit of S&W is contained in the masterfully subtle “Reminder 8”:
Mr. Pullum would do well to read this carefully, (if not very carefully, at least pretty carefully), loosen up a bit, and perhaps learn a lesson important for any writer: don't take yourself too seriously.
Personally, I find the useful advice on how to improve my writing in The Elements of Style to far outweigh whatever flaws it may contain in strict formalistic grammar.
Mr. Pullum repeatedly states that it is not the style but the grammatical advice with which he finds fault, then continues to devote most of his essay to criticisms of style, rather than grammar. He deliberately or through laziness excludes the context which would show those criticisms to be invalid. He notes the failure of readers to heed S&W's own counterpoints to their suggestions, then blames this “damage” on S&W. Finally, after mentioning his scholarly life, he can't refrain from referring to S&W, deceased and unable to respond, as “bumblers” and their rules “misbegotten”.
While The Elements of Style undoubtedly has flaws, now that I've seen an example of Mr. Pullum's work I'm not inclined to look to him as an alternative.
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protected by RegDwighт♦ Apr 6 '12 at 20:21
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