Against Strunk & White's 'The Elements of Style'


Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" remains very popular, but over the years I've come to be persuaded that it is, at least, badly flawed—especially if viewed as a set of rules (which it sometimes how it comes across) rather than just as advice. For a readable and persuasive, if slightly overstated, eight-page essay taking that view, see Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum's "The Land of the Free and The Elements of Style." An excerpt:

I believe the success of Elements to be one of the worst things to have happened to English language education in America in the past century. The book's style advice, largely vapid and obvious ("Do not overwrite"; "Be clear"), may do little damage; but the numerous statements about grammatical correctness are actually harmful. They are riddled with inaccuracies, uninformed by evidence, and marred by bungled analysis. Elements is a dogmatic bookful of bad usage advice, and the people who rely on it have no idea how badly off-beam its grammatical claims are. In this essay I provide some illustrations, and a review of some of the book's most striking faults….

I begin with a few cases in which Elements offers accounts of the grammatical facts about Standard English that are flatly contradicted by educated usage. And I mean the usage not just of today, but of Strunk's era, the late 19th and very early 20th centuries.

Verb agreement

"The number of the subject determines the number of the verb," says the heading of §9 of the 1979 and subsequent editions, a section that White added. The statement is certainly true (though incomplete: person is also relevant). But one of the statements in the section (p. 10) is this:

With none, use the singular verb when the word means "no one" or "not one."

The sentence None of us are perfect is given as an example of incorrect grammar; None of us is perfect is claimed to be the correction.

The arrogance here is breathtaking. None of us are perfect is a line from literature. It is uttered by Canon Chasuble in the second act of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" (1895), possibly the greatest of all stage comedies in English. It is absurd to suggest that Wilde didn't know the rule of verb agreement, and surely false that he wanted to depict the learned Chasuble as unable to speak standard English. White is simply stipulating a rule that doesn't accord with standard English usage, not even the usage that prevailed in his youth.

It is extremely easy to confirm this today, when hundreds of classic novels are available in readily searchable plain text at the Gutenberg Project site. One can just pick a random novel from about a hundred years ago and search it. I chose Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), published two years before White was born.

Searching for none of us, none of you, and none of them, I found that there are no examples at all of singular agreement with these phrases. Wherever they occur as subjects of present-tense verbs, the agreement is plural: none of us were surprised; none of them were of very recent date; none of them are very large.

Of course, my point is not that singular agreement is wrong. Searching literary works will bring up examples showing that some writers favour the singular. But it also brings up plenty of other plural agreement cases, from paragons of excellent English writing ….

As Ben Zimmer pointed out on Language Log (Feb. 7, 2008), Thomas Lounsbury had already delivered a scathing comment on this sort of pontification in a book called The Standard of Usage in English in 1908:

There is no harm in a man's limiting his employment of none to the singular in his own individual usage, if he derives any pleasure from this particular form of linguistic martyrdom. But why should he go about seeking to inflict upon others the misery which owes its origin to his own ignorance?

As we shall see, Strunk and White seek to inflict a lot more misery on their hapless readers….

Pullum offers many other examples, for instance having to do with the singular they, the connective however, split infinitives, and the ever-popular that/which debate. Very much worth reading, if you're interested in language and usage (and debates about language and usage).