Monday, 13 April 2009

The Elements Of Style: Grammar Bible or Bad Advice?

Geoffrey Pullum, head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh and co-author (with Rodney Huddleston) of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has an interesting article in the latest issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education lambasting the famous book by Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.

If you went to university in the United States like I did, chances are you had to read this book. It's considered the Bible by many writers and university professors, but Pullum systematically destroys it in a scathing critique. I won't repeat his attacks here save for one, because it answered a question that had been bugging me for many years.

I've come across many writers and even a few editors who insist a sentence such as, "There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground" is in the passive voice. I've never understood this, because it is so obviously untrue. While I agree that passive voice tends to weaken prose and should be used sparingly, there's nothing passive about this particular construction. Apparently the origin for this belief comes from The Elements of Style. Strunk and White give four examples of passive sentences, three of which are not, in fact, passive, including the example I just gave. Pullum points out many other serious grammatical errors in the famous style manual and it makes me wonder why this has been such a popular book for so long?

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