Geoffrey K. Pullum’s essay, “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice”, offers criticism for The Elements of Style with some humor. Pullum points his finger at the authors claiming they are responsible for degrading American students’ grasp of English grammar. Instead of supporting this claim with evidence, he spends the majority of the essay with false accusations based on poor comprehension.

The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White is a reference guide about improving writing. The guide contains advice and lessons about grammar, but it is not a textbook on grammar. The rules presented are not inflexible. Reminding novice writers of common mistakes is the primary goal.

Pullum’s essay makes a curious claim:

Since today it provides just about all of the grammar instruction most Americans ever get, that is something of a tragedy.

How did Pullum arrive at this conclusion? He provides an example from personal experience, but offers no evidence. Perhaps some students use the reference guide as their sole source of grammar instruction, but the majority?

Where Pullum fails is in his misinterpretation of the text. Part of his evidence is the claim that Strunk and White do not understand passive construction. He points out errors in the section titled, “Use the active voice.” He claims that three of the four examples given are mistakes, that three of the examples are not passive such as:

“There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” has no sign of the passive in it anywhere.

Nowhere in the text do the authors claim this example is in the passive voice. The section never implies that all of the examples given are in the passive voice. The examples illustrate making a sentence stronger as noted in the text with the alternate version, “Dead leaves covered the ground.” The paragraph in The Elements of Style before these examples makes clear the intention:

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 or emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.

And the text after the examples:

Note, in the examples above, that when a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.

The authors know the difference between the active voice and the passive voice. It is up to the reader to read and understand the entire section. Perhaps the section could be more clear, but careful reading shows that Pullum’s assertion that the examples are in error is false. Each example shows a sentence made stronger.

Pullum defends his conclusion with this statement:

The only clauses that are not active are the passive clauses: “active” and “passive” are antonyms. Putting those four sentences (one of which is genuinely a passive) in a section that opens by attacking (illicitly) the use of the passive voice, and recommending that they be replaced by active equivalents, is equivalent to saying that they are passives.

This is an example of poor logic (not equivalent*, and again read and understand the entire passage.) Flawed logic leads to poor comprehension.

In another response, Pullum concedes that maybe Strunk and White understand the difference between passive and active, but maintains that the text makes it look like all the examples are in the passive voice. In a later response on the same page, he mentions that he cites evidence supporting his claims. But his essay lacks evidence supporting the claim that Elements “provides just about all of the grammar instruction most Americans ever get.”

Pullum asks us to try the following:

These examples can be found all over the Web in study guides for freshman composition classes. (Try a Google search on “great number of dead leaves lying.”)

A Google search including quotes without a period reported 358 results (70 without duplicates; skip to last page to find actual result count.) Ignoring all the links to Pullum’s essay and other blogs about it, a number of sources stated that the sentence is not passive. A few results showed a misunderstanding including a science course, a computer course, and a blog. A source showing understanding. Minnesota State made the mistake. Of the resulting sources aimed at English or writing students, 3 made the mistake and 6 correctly identified the sentence. Pullum has a point. Some readers do not understand what they read including Pullum. Considering the results revealed very few study guides for freshmen composition, this evidence is weak.

Another curious statement by Pullum:

Some of the claims about syntax are plainly false despite being respected by the authors. For example, Chapter IV, in an unnecessary piece of bossiness, says that the split infinitive “should be avoided unless the writer wishes to place unusual stress on the adverb.” The bossiness is unnecessary because the split infinitive has always been grammatical and does not need to be avoided.

Again, the authors make no claim about grammatical correctness. The text advises on style, and states in Chapter V (referenced from Chapter IV) that using the split infinitive is “a matter of ear.” Strunk and White want writers to think about and improve their writing.

Near the end of the piece, Pullum makes this claim:

Consider the explicit instruction: “With none, use the singular verb when the word means ‘no one’ or ‘not one.’”

Pullum cites counterexamples including Dracula and The Importance of Being Ernest. The counterexamples are valid only if instruction is truly explicit. Within the introduction of The Elements of Style, White states that style rules are a “matter of individual preference,” “established rules of grammar are open to challenge,” and “unless he is certain of doing well, he will probably do best by following the rules.” And throughout the text, White reiterates that the rules are not inflexible. Pullum’s statement is false and his evidence, irrelevant, apparent to anyone with basic comprehension.

Pullum’s response to criticism shows a lack of professionalism by attacking his critics, however much of it may be in jest considering the source of criticism.

I agree with Pullum that The Elements of Style should not be the sole resource for learning grammar, but grammar instruction is not the intent of the book. Is it responsible for degrading grammar in America? Pullum does not offer any evidence.

When I read an essay (or blog) from a linguist, I expect a well written piece based on solid comprehension citing strong evidence. (I don’t expect basic logic.) Do I ask too much?

Read and understand.

Other responses to the essay:

*Pullum tries to argue using a binary system (passive vs active) based on the section starting with an example of the passive voice. For a definition, see An Introduction to Analysis Third Edition by Wade, page 590. There are other ways to show this false including a counterexample found within the text itself.