Managing the crisis of unsound English 'rules'

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Prof. Geoffrey Pullum (Language Log, Lingua Franca) writes:

Just by chance, really. I happened to discover that in the syllabus for a course on crisis management at a noted law school (a sound and well-organized course as far as I could judge) students are informed that 60 percent of their grade will be based on a case study, and "because proper English usage is essential to effective communication, a portion of the final grade will be based upon compliance with the principles outlined in The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White."

Part of the grade in a professional-school course is being determined by "compliance" with the misguided edicts in an overrated little book of bad advice originating as a required text prescribed for students of English at Cornell nearly 100 years ago! It's chilling. . . .

Read the rest of Pullum's post for more; you can also see my excerpts from Pullum's more extended critique of Strunk and White and also the full critique itself.

Of course, professors are quite right to grade student work based in part on the quality of the writing. Writing that violates the actual rules of English grammar (which is to say, the writing departs from how English grammar is actually used in edited prose)—or writing that is perfectly grammatical but needlessly redundant, unclear, pompous and so on—rightly merits a lower grade. But I agree with Pullum that lack of "compliance" with many of Strunk and White's recommendations can't be rightly labeled a departure from "proper English usage." Indeed, as Pullum has pointed out, Strunk and White themselves often don't "compl[y]" with their own advice.

I corresponded with the professor who was the subject of the Pullum post, and he said he was traveling but might respond later; in the meantime, his response was that Pullum was "making a mountain out of a mole hill without any context." I look forward to any further response the professor might pass along.

Thanks to my colleague Steve Yeazell for the pointer.