Sometehing a Little Different

Do you rely on Strunk & White? Do you like it? The front page of today's Post-Gazette includes a piece by Mackenzie Carpenter that covers this week's controversy about the merits of that little book. The volume is turning 50 years old, and it is the subject of scathing criticism in this week's edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

I'm a fan of the critic and no fan of Strunk & White; I mentioned the controversy on one of my other blogs. The critical quotation that I picked up is this one:

It’s sad. Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write “however” or “than me” or “was” or “which,” but can’t tell you why. The land of the free in the grip of The Elements of Style.

So I won’t be spending the month of April toasting 50 years of the overopinionated and underinformed little book that put so many people in this unhappy state of grammatical angst. I’ve spent too much of my scholarly life studying English grammar in a serious way. English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can’t even tell when they’ve broken their own misbegotten rules.

In other words, Strunk & White gives false and often mistaken comfort to writers who are seeking rules -- any rules! -- regarding what and how to write.

The P-G report omits some important context. Much as I appreciate front-page coverage of this seemingly esoteric but vitally important topic (I'm serious), the details matter.

The lead critic is Geoff Pullum, a senior linguist and currently a professor at the University of Edinburgh. The Post-Gazette story leaves the reader with the impression that he is a stuffy and pedantic British academic; it frames his criticism as coming from "author of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and a University of Edinburgh linguistics professor." That's correct. Geoff Pullum is, today, teaching in Scotland. But there is more.

Geoff Pullum is not some cranky Brit parked in a remote (though highly distinguished) university. He knows far more about English - American English - than you or I do. For more than 25 years (1981 to 2007) Geoff Pullum was a faculty member at the University of California - Santa Cruz. He's an American citizen. And he writes frequently and widely about day-to-day usage of the English language in American contexts, as a contributor to the number one blog on language and linguistics, Language Log.

Writers of all stripes -- bloggers, novelists, professional journalists, and academics -- should add LL to their daily reading list.


0 Responses to "Sometehing a Little Different"

Search Pittsblog

About Pittsblog

Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

Comments are moderated.
Subscribe to Pittsblog comments


Blog Archive

Header Background

Header background images licensed from (left image) lemonad and (right image) plaskota under Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - Share Alike 2.0 Generic licenses.


Copyright 2003-2010 Michael J. Madison - WP Theme by Brian Gardner - Blogger Blog Templates,