So Edinburgh linguist Geoffrey Pullum does not like William Strunk and E.B. White’s Elements of Style:

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.

As someone who was assigned and tested on the Elements in one of my very first undergraduate classes and still harbors a near-religious devotion to conjoining my infinitives and keeping my “however“s tucked safely in the middles of my sentences, my initial reaction when I started reading this piece was to get, well, a bit defensive – but there’s no denying that Pullum makes a strong case. For example, consider Strunk and White’s notorious “however” rule:

However. Avoid starting a sentence with ‘however’ when the meaning is “nevertheless.” The word usually serves better when not in first position. (Elements, p. 48)

Comments Pullum:

Searching for “however” at the beginnings of sentences and “however” elsewhere reveals that good authors alternate between placing the adverb first and placing it after the subject. The ratios vary. Mark Liberman, of the University of Pennsylvania, checked half a dozen of Mark Twain’s books and found roughly seven instances of “however” at the beginning of a sentence for each three placed after the subject, whereas in five selected books by Henry James, the ratio was one to 15. In Dracula I found a ratio of about one to five. 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.

It goes on like that, with the textbook takes on “that” and “which” (“There was never a period in the history of English when ‘which’ at the beginning of a restrictive relative clause was an error.”), the number of a verb following “none” (”… the stipulation in Elements is totally at variance not just with modern conversational English but also with literary usage back when Strunk was teaching and White was a boy.”), and even those famous strictures against using the passive voice (“Strunk and White are denigrating the passive by presenting an invented example of it deliberately designed to sound inept.”) coming under similar fire. Indeed, argues Pullum, the real problem seems to be that Strunk and White, though both perfectly good writers who had the good sense not to write in the ways that they told others to, didn’t know anything about grammar at all:

The book’s contempt for its own grammatical dictates seems almost willful, as if the authors were flaunting the fact that the rules don’t apply to them. But I don’t think they are. Given the evidence that they can’t even tell actives from passives, my guess would be that it is sheer ignorance. They know a few terms, like “subject” and “verb” and “phrase,” but they do not control them well enough to monitor and analyze the structure of what they write.

Pullum should know, of course: he’s the author of this big fat book, which having read this essay I’d gladly assign to my intro students in place of Strunk & White if not for the fact that it costs over $160 and runs to nearly 2,000 pages long. (Anyone have some alternative suggestions?) It’s hard, though, not to feel like his criticism sometimes goes a bit beyond its proper bounds, as for example when he seems to blame MS Word’s nasty habit of underlining EVERY SINGLE PASSIVE-VOICE CONSTRUCTION in one of those bothersome green lines on our national love-affair with the Elements (“That overinterpretation is part of the damage that Strunk and White have unintentionally done.”); this may be accurate for all I know, but I’d need to see a bit more evidence.

Similarly, consider that charge I began with, that the “enormous influence” of the Elements “has not improved American students’ grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it”: I can think of quite a lot of things that have done great damage to the grammatical competence of our nation’s student population, ultimately driving things to a point where college upperclassmen at an institution like UC Berkeley turn in essays riddled with sentence fragments and marked by what seems to be an utter inability to differentiate, say, “one self” from “oneself”, let alone “its” from “it’s”. But blaming it on Strunk and White? Sure, an overly slavish devotion to the grammatical principles of Elements – or of any such handbook, for that matter – is going to make for some unpleasantly stilted prose, but I’m certainly not alone in wishing that more of my students ever showed evidence of “grammatical angst” when it came time to put words on a page (or, worse, an e-mail). Perhaps, since no one teaches grammar anyway, those of us in the humanistic disciplines with other material to get to would do better just to pass out copies of “Politics and the English Language”, run off a few of White’s old New Yorker essays, and tell our sophomores, “Here: write like this“. Given what we’re facing, though, turning to a slim and appropriately bossy text like the Elements seems an obviously understandable reaction.

“The land of the free in the grip of The Elements of Style“, Pullum calls us. If only.