Prof: Strunk & White Are “Idiosyncratic Bumblers”

When it rolls around April 16, one angry academic will not be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the esteemed Strunk and White's Elements of Style.

Before those vexed by grammar throw a death-of-structure party (you know you want to), keep in mind that Geoffrey K. Pullum's essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education calls out Strunk and White for being haphazard, sloppy and, most damningly, "grammatical incompetents."

White, of course, was E. B. White, New Yorker writer and author of Charlotte's Web; Strunk was William Strunk, a professor who wrote the first edition and taught White in college in 1919. Pullum attacks both men with the venom usually reserved for war criminals, relief pitchers who can't get an out and people who sing poorly on American Idol.

The kindest words Mr. Pullum has for the 50-year-old guide -- that many deem indispensable -- pertain to its style advice, which he dubs (quoting The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, mind you) "mostly harmless."

Pullum, the head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh and co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, seems like he has been carrying this baggage for quite a while (maybe 50 years), and he positively unloads.

He spends a great deal of time debunking the myth perpetuated by Strunk and White that the passive voice is unacceptable. He then closes his diatribe with this apoplectic shot over the bow of the long dead authors of The Elements of Style (in the passive, of course):

"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."

He must be really fun at parties.

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