I was reading the comments on this answer where several users claimed that Strunk and White’s The 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.

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    @Shinto Sherlock: This is not a rhetorical question in the least; it is a genuine and honest question. I asked the question here because I honestly want to get input from others like @nohat, @Kosmonaut and @kiamlaluno who seem to take great pride in offering well written and well considered answers. I'm here to learn. It seems maybe you just didn't like that I didn't accept your link as an answer; are you retaliating? If so that is a really nasty way to behave. You'll note I didn't down vote your answer even though I feel it is substandard. Sep 12, 2010 at 1:16
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    S&W is mostly Opinion, not rules, about Style, which is itself subjective. I believe this is even stated in the book. I have a few nits to pick with it, but overall I find it helpful and entertaining. when I get home this evening I'll take mine off the shelf and see if I can list some of the warts and good parts. In France they have (so I'm told) an Official Body that amounts to Language Police. Us Anglo-phones gets to be way looser. Sep 15, 2010 at 14:26
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    @mickeyf: I'd also find that useful. The article @Shinto linked to is good, but focuses in a bit too much on the passive-voice stuff, which I suspect is far from the whole picture. Sep 15, 2010 at 19:11
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    I downvoted this question because I don't think anybody can answer it. As mickeyf said, style manuals are mostly opinion. The opinions may be based on good evidence, but you pick almost any element of style and you can find someone who won't like your way of doing it.
    – J D OConal
    Sep 18, 2010 at 3:01
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    Hi @J D OConal: Thanks for explaining the downvote. I noticed in numerous answers here that people were stating that S&W is wrong as if by canon so I wanted to know why so I could disregard those aspects (@RegDwight I now realize the "canon" aspect is more meta but again I'm not here to comment on governance I just wanted to learn.) That said @J D OConal I think you are wrong in your analysis. I'm not asking for what's wrong with the book as a whole but for what's wrong with specific passages so I can avoid them. If that's not possible than nothing on this site can be answered. Sep 18, 2010 at 14:22

8 Answers 8


[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 is 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 like 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

I treasure The Elements of Style for [...] the audacity and self-confidence of its author. [...] He had a number of likes and dislikes that were almost as whimsical as the choice of a necktie, yet...

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 one looks 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 one 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 clichés: "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 little explanations that are 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:

Any young person prone to getting tattoos might consider having a few of these permanently engraved where they can readily be seen: Omit needless words. Use concrete language. Be clear. Avoid fancy words. Revise and rewrite. Pure gold.

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:

After this unpromising start, there is some fairly sensible style advice: The authors explicitly say they do not mean "that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice," which is "frequently convenient and sometimes necessary." They give good examples to show that the choice between active and passive may depend on the topic under discussion.

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:

Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.

There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground. --> Dead leaves covered the ground.

The sound of the falls could still be heard. --> The sound of the falls still reached our ears.

The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired. --> Failing health compelled him to leave college.

It was not long before he was very sorry that he had said what he had. --> He soon repented his words.

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 the authors claim that "None of us are perfect" is a grammar mistake. Of course, since S&W is not a grammar book and its authors do not claim that anything in the book is 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":

A plural verb is commonly used when none suggests more than one thing or person.

 None are so fallible as those who are sure they're right.

(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):

The use of which for that is common in written and spoken language ("Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass."). Occasionally which seems preferable to that, as in the sentence from the Bible. But it would be a convenience to all if these two pronouns were used with precision.

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 completely caught up. Ideally, another book dispensing the kind of style advice for which S&W is noted would take its place, providing the kind of advice on composition that goes beyond mere grammar or Chicago Manual of Style advice — but none of S&W's 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 voice or restrictive which as a grammar mistake, and so 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.) is just mean-spirited.

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    It should also be noted that S&W is not directed at professional writers and authors who earn a living crafting language. Those at that level of skill have internalized style and syntax and require little correction. Rather, Strunk and White aim at the high school student and the college freshman. In my own editorial work, some 80 percent or so of what I do is deleting needless words. The ideas are there, but usually buried beneath unnecessary qualifiers and weasel words.
    – The Raven
    Feb 27, 2011 at 20:53
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    @TheRaven Interesting that you spend so much time deleting needless words. In my schooling, about 80% or so of my editorial work was adding superfluous wording to meet ridiculous word-count requirements. Dec 21, 2012 at 15:37
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    @Araucaria: you're perfectly free to write a style guide of your own. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding: can you find a publisher for it? Can the publisher sell it? If your style advice resonates with people, it's ipso facto good advice; if it doesn't, well, maybe you need to rethink things.
    – Marthaª
    Dec 14, 2015 at 17:42
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    Quoting the 1918 edition is straw-manning Pollum a bit (actually a lot). If you read all of what Pollum has said, he makes it very clear that it's the later editions that are the most problematic ones. While the 1918 one suggests it judicious to, for instance, strictly distinguish that/which, the 1959 edition flatly and incorrectly states, "That is the defining, or restrictive, pronoun, which the nondefining, or nonrestrictive." Many 1918 suggestions become hard rules or declarations in subsequent editions. See lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/LandOfTheFree.html Dec 16, 2015 at 3:34
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    Ordinary people, American or not, are more stupid and/or lazier than you might think. Although you emphasize the Element of Style is "a style guide, not a grammar textbook or reference", which I think is technically correct, most ordinary people would look up one of these style guides that are "terse and concise" when they are looking for a quick answer to their writing question, in part because they're stupid enough to readily confuse "style" with "grammar", and in part because they're too lazy to look up a more comprehensive grammar like The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.
    – JK2
    Dec 16, 2015 at 3:50

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.

  • "Do not inject opinion" he calls silly. “Reminder 17” spells out very clearly and by concrete example that it is gratuitous opinion that S&W are warning against. For more than one reason he might be advised to re-read this paragraph carefully.

  • The advice to "Be clear" Pullum calls “vapid”. In his case this is true, since he says no more. S&W, on the other hand, spend an entire page describing both the importance of clarity and ways in which one might fail to achieve clarity, with helpful suggestions for the beginning writer.

  • "Omit needless words." Then, says Pullum, “The students who know which words are needless don't need the instruction.” I'm grateful not to have an unhelpful professor like Pullum who presumes that I already know as much as he does. For the rest of us, S&W continue with a page and a half of specific examples of typical excess verbage. These are close relatives of what George Orwell described as “less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse. ” (“Politics and the English Language”

  • "Do not explain too much" In his previous complaint, Mr. Pullum did not explain too much, or even enough. Neither, apparently, did he read enough. For those troubling to read more of “Reminder 11” than simply its heading, S&W make it crystal clear that they are warning specifically against excessive use of adverbs, a lá Tom Swift. Considering that Strunk's little book was contemporaneous with Swift's popularity, that this was a concern should be no surprise, but the advice is as valid as ever.

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”:

8.Avoid the use of qualifiers.

Rather, very, little, pretty – these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words. The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one and we are all pretty sure to violate it now and then.

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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    Hi @mickeyf - That's an incredible writeup, thank you. I think I learned far more from you than anything Pullum mentioned. I didn't come here with a goal to discredit Pullum's criticism but I'm definitely now leaning in that direction. Sep 18, 2010 at 14:08
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    I find this answer to be misleading and not really an answer to the original question. By my reading, well over half the essay addresses the specific errors Elements makes regarding English syntax, as I summarized in my answer. Think what you will about Elements ’ advice on style, the advice on grammar is quite often objectively incorrect, and that’s what the original questioner was asking about.
    – nohat
    Sep 18, 2010 at 17:53
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    As a response to the objection towards the top of this answer that only Mr. Pullum has criticized Elements, there is, at least, this collection of guest blog posts at the New York Times all of which are at least somewhat critical of the book.
    – nohat
    Sep 18, 2010 at 18:08
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    @mickeyf, if you are arguing that this book should never be used as a reference for any questions of grammar, then I agree with you! But, if this is so obvious, then why do people seem to be mistakenly citing it as a reference for grammar? I can tell you why: Section II talks about things you must do, otherwise you are wrong ("wrong" in terms of following the standard), but Section III is all things that the author just thinks you should do, and yet the tone is just as absolute and one-sided as Section II. That is why the book does more harm than good.
    – Kosmonaut
    Sep 18, 2010 at 22:02
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    @mickeyf - This is very well argued and also an enjoyable read. Do you have a blog or website? Apr 29, 2011 at 0:01

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:

Passive voice

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.

Split infinitives

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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    Perhaps the worst part of Elements is the way each section is titled and its overall tone. For example, the section on passive voice is not called "Discussion of Active and Passive Voice", it is called "Use Active Voice". They then spend most of the section arguing (poorly) that passive voice is inherently inferior to the active voice. But, at the very end of the section, they backtrack and say that sometimes the passive is better than the active. It's no wonder that people got the idea that these rules were absolute — if you skim the book, that is exactly how it appears!
    – Kosmonaut
    Sep 18, 2010 at 21:56
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    This answer propagates even more falsehoods about the book than Pullum's essay, by intensifying things he says. Really, I must wonder if Pullum and his followers have actually read the book recently, or are simply reacting to how others use the book. Sep 19, 2010 at 11:00
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    To substantiate my previous comment (won't fit there): Your claims that the book "strongly advises against the passive voice" (all it says is "The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive"), that it misidentifies the passive voice (see my answer), that it says "a sentence should not begin with however " (all it says is "avoid… the word usually serves better when not in first position") and that it says "restrictive relative clauses must never be introduced with which" are all false. Sep 19, 2010 at 11:02
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    @Kosmonaut: If you were writing a booklet of advice for your students (as opposed to a scholarly work), would you really title your sections "Discussion of active voice", "Discussion of clarity", "Discussion of brevity", "Discussion of naturalness", "Discussion of revising" etc.? :-) Almost every advice has its limits, but you still have to say something in the title. Strunk says "Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, non-committal language." :D Sep 19, 2010 at 17:28
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    @Kosmonaut: You seem to be reading an entirely different book! In this book, in the section called "Use the active voice" (which you've thrice called "Use Passive Voice" by mistake), they don't "admit" that the passive voice is useful at the end, but immediately after their first example. Then they move on to other things. It is also false that they misidentify the passive voice. The only two examples they give of the passive voice as such ("My first visit…", "The dramatists…") are indeed passive. And blaming a book for others' abuse? Jan 3, 2011 at 11:59

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.

The Land of the Free and the Elements of Style

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.

  • 2
    +1 for the link Pullum’s excellent article which addresses the problems with Elements much more in depth than his editorial in the Chronicle does
    – nohat
    Jan 3, 2011 at 4:50
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    @ShreevatsaR: "It is absurd to treat it as an authority, but he's blaming the failures of the education system on a book." This failure of the educational system is the widespread use of this book as an authority. Now, how do you expect Pullum to effect change in this system other than attempting to make it well-known that the book is flawed, in an attempt to convince teachers and schools not to use it?
    – Kosmonaut
    Jan 3, 2011 at 16:27
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    @Kosmonaut: I approve of Pullum's noble and crucial work in pointing out that the book is terrible as a grammar guide. (It's tragic that such obvious things need pointing out… but I guess the real world is what it is.) All 11 pages of the above article were great, and they confirmed much of what I thought about English usage. What I don't like is his endless barrage of personal attacks on the authors, calling them liars, hypocrites, etc., and the idea that attempting to foist your strange little choices on the world is a grave sin. I'm not even fond of the book, but I think it's not sinful. :p Jan 3, 2011 at 20:28
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    The Elements should be read by anyone interested in writing well. Strunk and White have good advice. In addition, aspiring writers should read the Chicago Manual, and Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, and Mencken's The American Language, and a whole bunch of other things. Talking about S&W in isolation is not productive. If nothing else, their credo - "omit needless words" - is the single takeaway a reader need garner from them.
    – The Raven
    Feb 27, 2011 at 21:02
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    @The Raven, what about people who want to write English rather than American? Feb 27, 2011 at 21:17

Here then is the list in installments. I'm going to provide you with excerpts from the text itself. Instead of cherry-picking sentences to manipulate them mendaciously for my own purposes, I will give you each mini-section in full before describing what is wrong with it. I start with the passive, it is the least offensive of Elements of Style's major offences.

14. Use the active voice.

The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive:

  • I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.

This is much better than

  • My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.

The latter sentence is less direct, less bold, and less concise. If the writer tries to make it more concise by omitting "by me."

  • My first visit to Boston will always be remembered,

it becomes indefinite: is it the writer or some undisclosed person or the world at large that will always remember this visit?

This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.

  • The dramatists of the Restoration are little esteemed today.
  • Modern readers have little esteem for the dramatists of the Restoration.

The first would be the preferred form in a paragraph on the dramatists of the Restoration, the second in a paragraph on the tastes of modern readers. The need to make a particular word the subject of the sentence will often, as in these examples, determine which voice is to be used.

The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.

  There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground. 
  Dead leaves covered the ground. 
  At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard. 
  The cock's crow came with dawn. 

  The reason he left college was that his health became impaired. 
  Failing health compelled him to leave college. 
  It was not long before he was very sorry that he had said what he had.
  He soon repented his words. 

Page 14

Now at first glance this all seems very innocuous. Don't be fooled. It isn't.

Is this generally useful advice?

Now the truth about the passive and active voices is that when you use which will depend primarily on two factors. The first is which entities in your sentence have already been mentioned and which haven't. As a rule of thumb the best place for new information is at the end of the sentence. It is the end of sentence which carries most focus. Putting new information at the beginning of a sentence puts undue stress on your reader and makes sentences difficult to cognitively process. This is exacerbated when the first phrase is an indefinite noun phrase. Consider the following example:

  1. a. I've been studying the Mona Lisa. Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa.

This pair of sentences is awkward to say the least. It is certainly an example of poor style. What is the problem? Well, the major problem is that the second sentence uses the active voice. The writer has ill-advisedly gone out of their way to avoid a passive. The result is that the discourse-old Mona Lisa is occurring at the end of the second sentence with all the grace of a limping warthog, whilst the revelatory information, the star attraction in the sentence, Leonardo Da Vinci appears at the beginning. Because Da Vinci occurs at the beginning it gives the reader the impression that something more informative, more exciting and more revelatory is going to occur further on in the utterance. Hearts arrested, breath baited we wait in anticipation ... to find boring old bloody Mona Lisa sitting at the end of the sentence. Now that's just rude. The writer had no reason to do that to us and then let us down so badly. This pair of sentences break some basic conventions of how speakers (and writers) package information. Here's what the writer should have done:

  1. b. I've been studying the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo Da Vinci.

The reason the passive sentence works well is that the Mona Lisa links back to the first sentence, whilst Da Vinci, which is new to the discourse, takes the prominent position at the end.

The second factor which will affect whether you want to use active or passive voice is which entities in your sentence you wish to specify and which you don't. There are two types of passive sentence, long passives and short passives. Long passives are usually used for the purposes given above. Short passives are often used when:

  • we don't want to mention the agent for political or social reasons
  • we don't know who the agent is
  • the agent is obvious and therefore redundant
  • the agent is irrelevant to our conversation
  • our knowledge of the agent is so vague that mentioning them is redundant

For any of the reasons above the fist sentence here is probably more effective than the second:

  • I've been shot!
  • Somebody's shot me!

If, however, the agent is someone important or interesting in the context of your text, then you will prefer an active voice sentence over a short passive:

  • The world cup has been won!
  • Cameroon have won the world cup!

So, the upshot of all of this is you should just choose the active or passive voice according to your needs. If there is one rule of thumb to stick to, it is to put new information at the end of your sentence and old information at the beginning. Now I spend ages getting my students to be able to do this. It's not as easy as it looks, especially if English is not your first language. Any so-called style guide which blandly states avoid the passive - but there are times when you will need to use it is wrong. If someone wishes to make allowances for it because it uses a hedge which says that the passive is occasionally required, then I put it to them that this advice has now become so wishy-washy and bland that it has no advisory value. However, there is, of course, also the fact that this advice is definitely going to make people's writing worse. Those people who write naturally will not need any advice. Those people who don't will find the application of this advice makes their writing worse, not better. The worst kind of error a student can make is a teacher-induced one. I have had Mona-Lisa-style writing from at least one student who was trying to "avoid the passive". Avoiding the passive is not what we want students to do.

Does Strunk actually know what a passive is?

In Pullum's well-justified if harsh critique of Elements, he points out that, like hoards of subsequent writers who cite them, Strunk & White give the distinct impression that they don't know what a passive is. Why does Pullum think this? Well look at their last paragraph from that section reproduced below:

The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.

Now, the topic sentence of this paragraph is about the active voice. The paragraph is about the active voice. The last sentence certainly seems to be about the active voice. So when Strunk writes a sentence ... can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice, we can only assume that he means substituting an active voice sentence for a non-active one (a.k.a. passive voice). It has been argued elsewhere here (notice how deftly I used the passive there to avoid naming the individual culprit) that Strunk is merely giving examples of how transitive verbs in the active voice can be used. This is obviously poppycock. How is substituting one active voice sentence for another an example of how the active voice is effective? It isn't. This isn't at all what Strunk was trying to do, and it's deceptive to paint it that way. If, in fact, that had been what he was trying to do, what it would show is just how bad this book actually is.

Now, if you look at the four pairs of example sentences in grey in the Elements text, you will clearly see that only one of the eight sentences is in the passive voice: At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard. The other three "bad examples" are all active voice sentences; one an existential sentence, one a cleft and the other an active voice sentence using dummy it. Strunk certainly gives the reader the impression that he thinks these are not active voice sentences. They are.

However, this is still relatively innocuous stuff (even if it is basically just making students' writing worse). Let's get down to the real business. All the examples used in the Active voice section are disingenuous, misleading and intellectually dishonest.

Disingenuous examples

Let's have a look at the examples given by Strunk in the Use the active voice section. They are meant to show how substituting the active voice for the passive voice will invigorate sentences. According to some specific writers elsewhere on this page they are not meant to do this at all. They are meant to show how substituting the active voice for the, erm, active voice will invigorate students' writing. More specifically Strunk is purportedly showing how using transitive verbs in the active voice will invigorate ones writing.

What is beyond any doubt here - even if there is some attempt to persuade readers on this page that Strunk isn't trying to say anything about the passive or active voice per se (obviously not true for any educated reader) - is that Strunk is trying to show that the verb form chosen will make a difference to the writing style. To this end he presents us with pairs of sentences where the matrix verb form (the verb form in the main clause) changes in each example. These examples are there to persuade the reader as well as to demonstrate this point. Let's look at the first pair of sentences:

  • There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.
  • Dead leaves covered the ground.

So the first sentence here uses an existential construction. Existential constructions are very important for good writers because they enable the writer to shunt the Subject further down a clause so it will have more emphasis. In fact the existential construction is essential to avoid bad style sentences such as A cafe is on the corner as opposed to There's a cafe on the corner. Elements gives the very best impression that it can that existential constructions are somehow passives. They aren't. Anyhow, let's look at the actual sentences involved and how they are put together. The first sentence has the verb were as the matrix verb. It has the verb lying as the verb in the subordinate clause. Let's translate that into a canonical active voice sentence:

  • A great number of leaves were lying on the ground.

That sentence is clunky. Let's use a transitive verb as Strunk suggests. He uses the verb COVER:

  • A great number of leaves were covering the ground.

So we have the following sentences, You can judge their stylistic merits for yourself:

  • There were a great number of leaves lying on the ground.
  • A great number of leaves were lying on the ground.
  • A great number of leaves were covering the ground.

I very much doubt that you find the third example a huge improvement on the first or second (maybe you find it much worse). The problem with each of these sentences is that the noun phrase a great number of leaves is plainly rubbish for a descriptive sentence because of the great number of modifier. This of course is not a verb. It has nothing to do with a verb. It is unrelated to the active or passive voice. So how does Strunk persuade you that using an active (i.e. non-existential) construction would be better? He removes the inane a great number of which is completely inappropriate for a descriptive piece of writing (but fine for a social sciences one) for his pet example. Now the topic isn't a great number of dead leaves but dead leaves. So he presents the reader with two sentences to show how the active voice can make a sentence more vigorous, and then changes the entire noun phrases involved to hoodwink the reader into believing what he just said. The real parallel sentences are as shown in the triplet of examples above. And there is no evidence whatsoever from these examples to suggest that replacing passive (or even existential) constructions is any sort of improvement.

Maybe the second pair of sentences will bring out the pedagogical virtue of this section:

  • At dawn, the crowing of a rooster could be heard.
  • The cock's crow came with dawn.

Well, here we go - a genuine passive (about time too). Erm, is it me, or is the second sentence far worse than the first? Less evocative, less natural, less lyrical? Anyhow, here Strunk is again demonstrating how a limp construction like the passive can be invigorated by the use of a transitive verb. We know the transitive verb thing because a) Strunk told us and b) so did another Strunk & White advocate on this page. So, right let's have a look at the transitive verb in the second sentence then. Oh dear, there IS no transitive verb. Oh my gosh, I must be wrong. Let's have another look. Hmmm, I don't want to be mean, or to have a go at Elements - so many people have bought it so it must be very good - BUT THERE IS NO TRANSITIVE VERB IN THE ""IMPROVED"" SENTENCE. Do I sound frustrated? I certainly ***** hope so. The verb came is not a transitive verb. Where's the transitive active voice verb? THERE IS NO TRANSITIVE VERB. Hmmm. Too strong perhaps? 10 million victims so far ...

  • 2
    The topic of that section is making sentences "more direct and vigorous" (which is generally useful advice). A big part of doing so is choosing the active voice (which is probably why that is chosen as the title of the section); another part is using "substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is…" (even if the latter is still active voice). Never have I read the later examples as changing from passive voice to active voice; it is Pullum (and others who compare it with a grammar book) who are introducing that impression. Dec 15, 2015 at 0:57
  • 2
    @ShreevatsaR That's quite simply not true. The increased vigour is meant to be due to the active voice. Dec 15, 2015 at 8:39
  • 2
    Pullum criticizes S&W for "loading the dice" by giving an infelicitous passive of an active with subject "I". It's bad ok, but not because it's passive. And that's what you do, "load the dice", with your example "I've been studying the Mona Lisa. Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa." That's bad ok, but not because a passive was shunned. You don't have to use a passive to avoid the wordy second reference to "the Mona Lisa". How about "Leonardo Da Vinci painted that" ? Or "... which Leonardo Da Vinci painted" ? Still nice and punchy, but not ending with old information.
    – Greg Lee
    Dec 16, 2015 at 2:45
  • 1
    @Araucaria Yes, I find the analysis unfair, especially its fundamental assumptions. Even without going into the details of your analysis, the problem is this: I see the book as being one guy's idiosyncratic preferences about what he likes to see in his students' essays, and mainly driven by examples, with the surrounding fluff being of secondary importance. (And think such a book is a a perfectly fine thing to write.) You are judging it like a grammar textbook, and evaluating whether the examples indeed correspond to what the surrounding fluff talks about. (contd.) Dec 16, 2015 at 22:44
  • 2
    @Araucaria (contd.) Moreover, you treat the reader as an idiot, instead of one who'll use the examples to determine what conclusions she draws from each section. And you're comparing it to a grammar textbook, instead of comparing it to books like Steven Pinker's A Sense of Style (which I'm currently reading) or Ben Yagoda's The Sound on the Page or Zinsser's On Writing Well (neither of which I've read). About the specific example: the contrast b/w "There were a great number…" and "Dead leaves covered the ground." is what's important, that it's from active voice is actually secondary! Dec 16, 2015 at 23:12

Full disclosure up front:

  1. Prior to my registering on this site, my knowledge about S&W was limited to being vaguely familiar with the sequence of characters, "Strunk & White" — and even that only thanks to the StackExchange badge of the same name.

  2. I don't feel like buying any book for the sole purpose of discussing it here — or on any SE site, for that matter.

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.

  • And I have close-voted accordingly: "belongs on meta".
    – RegDwigнt
    Sep 18, 2010 at 4:42
  • 2
    Strunk and White is not a reference, nor is it authoritative. It's a bunch of idiosyncratic opinions of the authors, and is a rather good and entertaining book, with much sound advice. It's not at all comparable to dictionaries or a corpus or even to the Chicago Manual of Style. Sep 18, 2010 at 5:59
  • 4
    @RegDwight: I respectfully disagree that this belongs on meta. As a moderator on SE's WordPress Answers I'm aware of meta and meta questions should be about the operation of the SE site, not about it's subject. This question is about the subject of the SE site, i.e. English and how S&W's advice is "wrong" (or as it turns out by at least one opinion given, not.) Your answer attempts to turn it my question into a meta which was not at all the reason I asked. I wanted to learn what to disregard in S&W, not get involved in the governance of this site. Sep 18, 2010 at 14:14
  • 1
    This question doesn't belong on Meta, since it's a question about an English usage book and not a question about this website. (More generally, if a comment on Meta leads to a follow-up question about English, it should come here.) I agree that several of the answers here, including mine, seem too "meta", but that's not "Meta" in the Stack Exchange sense... if it's a bad question, it should just be closed. :-) Sep 20, 2010 at 3:12
  • 1
    @ShreevatsaR: I don't think that it's a bad question. I am merely saying that this site is not a book discussion club. True, S&W is all about English Language and Usage, but so are countless other books, and it's a slippery slope. If asking for a list of errors in S&W is on-topic, then so is asking for a list of typos in the OED, and then so is asking for a list of typos in Through the Looking-Glass, or any book, for that matter. We have to draw the line somewhere. And I'm not insisting that we draw it right here, right now, pronto; I am just putting in my two pennies worth.
    – RegDwigнt
    Sep 20, 2010 at 15:45

I first read about The Elements of Style in in Stephen King's On Writing, and later in William Zinsser's On Writing Well. Intrigued, I purchased a copy and read it through; more than once.

King, having sold more than 350 million copies of his 50-something novels, could not speak more highly of Strunk and White's little book:

This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. […] One notable exception to the bullshit rule is The Elements of Style […]. I'll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style. (Second foreword.)

Verbs come in two types, active and passive. […] You should avoid the passive tense. I'm not the only one who says so; you can find the same advice in The Elements of Style. (Page 136.)

In his bestseller, On Writing Well, Zinsser concurs:

[…] The Elements of Style, a book every writer should read once a year […]. E.B White is one of my favourite stylists because I'm conscious of being a man who cares about the cadence and sonorities of the language. (Page 35.)

I enjoyed The Elements of Style, because English is not my native language and I had many lingering questions that were answered. The book was useful; I'm happy. Next book, please.

Whether The Elements of Style is grammatically correct or not, doesn't make much of a practical difference to most coarse persons like myself. We would benefit from the book, regardless.

Hence, the book is not misinformed, hypocritical, misleading or wrong; it's just subject to opinion. The answer to this question will vary depending on who you ask and how they feel.

Read it, learn from it what you can, forget your dislikes, and keep writing. If it was good enough for Stephen and William, then it's good enough for me. At least to get me started.


With many long good answers already, I just want to contribute a short comment. Let me point out one piece of Strunk and White's advice that English teachers have taken to heart and which is often completely wrong.

Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is ...

There is and There are are signals to the reader that the following is a new and important object in the discussion. Removing it can be a big mistake. Consider:

There is a house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun.
The Rising Sun is a house situated in New Orleans.

In a hole in a ground there lived a hobbit. –Tolkien
A hobbit lived in a hole in the ground.

We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. –MLK
We refuse to believe that the great vaults of opportunity of this nation contain insufficient funds.

There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. –Shakespeare
Taking certain tides in the affairs of men at the flood leads on to fortune.

Which one of these is better?

  • 'Many an X ...' and 'All X's ...' are not the same. Jan 5, 2017 at 21:45
  • @Edwin: that wasn't really the point of my answer. My point was that there is is not a "perfunctory expression". It has a use and a significance, and people who go through papers and eliminate all there is's without judging whether they serve a purpose (there are such people) risk making the writing significantly worse. Jan 6, 2017 at 0:38
  • In fact, it wasn't until I saw the lamentable results of one such person's efforts that I realized how useful an expression there is can be. Jan 6, 2017 at 0:44
  • I'm just pointing out that S&W for once aren't arrogating here. Contrast nohat's examples. (Not that what you say here isn't totally necessary for balance.) Jan 6, 2017 at 1:06

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