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Strunk and White's Bad Advice on Grammar

Copernicus

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The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is one of the most sacred texts in the canon of prescriptive grammar. For those interested in a flaming review of it, linguist Geoffrey Pullum will be giving a lecture at George Washington University in Washington DC on May 10:


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Pullum is a great speaker with a wicked sense of humor, and he has a lot of fun with the problems he found in The Elements of Style. For those who are interested in what he has to say, I recommend

The Land of the Free and The Elements of Style

Here is a taste of what he has to say:

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
 

bilby

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I have no doubt that the world would be better if it contained less prescriptivists.

As an aside, why on Earth do we make a distinction between countable and uncountable when reducing their quantity, but not when increasing it?

The opposite of "less" is "more", but the opposite of "fewer" is also "more".

English really is totally fucking weird; The idea that someone could sensibly write down a bunch of universal and absolute rules for it is insane. It's a true democracy of several billion speakers, all of whom have equal right to decide how to say whatever it is they are saying. I don't recall seeing Strunk or White on any ballot papers.
 

Copernicus

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I have no doubt that the world would be better if it contained less prescriptivists.

As an aside, why on Earth do we make a distinction between countable and uncountable when reducing their quantity, but not when increasing it?

The opposite of "less" is "more", but the opposite of "fewer" is also "more".

English really is totally fucking weird; The idea that someone could sensibly write down a bunch of universal and absolute rules for it is insane. It's a true democracy of several billion speakers, all of whom have equal right to decide how to say whatever it is they are saying. I don't recall seeing Strunk or White on any ballot papers.

Prescriptive grammarians are child abusers. English speakers have been using "less" more and more with count nouns for quite some time now. :) Syntactic patterns are emergent phenomena in chaotic language systems. Most people would be surprised at the complexity of some of those patterns, which they acquire intuitively for the most part. People don't just decide to say whatever they want. If they don't conform to common usage, they risk opprobrium.
 

Hermit

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Insistence on correct grammar can lead to confusion.

Trump-the-fewer.jpg
 

Loren Pechtel

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I have no doubt that the world would be better if it contained less prescriptivists.

As an aside, why on Earth do we make a distinction between countable and uncountable when reducing their quantity, but not when increasing it?

The opposite of "less" is "more", but the opposite of "fewer" is also "more".

English really is totally fucking weird; The idea that someone could sensibly write down a bunch of universal and absolute rules for it is insane. It's a true democracy of several billion speakers, all of whom have equal right to decide how to say whatever it is they are saying. I don't recall seeing Strunk or White on any ballot papers.
Yup. If we learn it young we don't really notice how messed up it is. However, again and again I find myself unable to explain to her why some bit of English insanity is the way it is.
 

Politesse

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Ah, grad school memories.

I'd be interested in the presentation, if I were anywhere near by. I have considerable issues of my own with prescriptivist approaches to style; those that stem from my own education on the one hand, and on the other, the damage I see in my own students' writing. I swear they are more hurt than helped by the way their secondary schooling encouraged them to write. I spend more time trying to break them out of problematic "formulas" for essay writing, than discussing the actual content of their work. Not just Strunk and White, though, there's all kinds of nonsense that gets thrown at them, from various fly by night "learning systems" that have imposed themselves on the high schools over the years.
 

bilby

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I have no doubt that the world would be better if it contained less prescriptivists.

As an aside, why on Earth do we make a distinction between countable and uncountable when reducing their quantity, but not when increasing it?

The opposite of "less" is "more", but the opposite of "fewer" is also "more".

English really is totally fucking weird; The idea that someone could sensibly write down a bunch of universal and absolute rules for it is insane. It's a true democracy of several billion speakers, all of whom have equal right to decide how to say whatever it is they are saying. I don't recall seeing Strunk or White on any ballot papers.
Yes. The problem is with "more" not "fewer". So, the solution is to *add* a word that means "more countable, indivisible objects" to go along with fewer rather than just use "less" for everything. My guess is that this won't likely catch on, though.
 

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I am very much a descriptivist as opposed to a prescriptivist, although I learned English from the latter. When I was a kid the advertising phrase “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” raised the ire of grammarians everywhere, including my parents. Winston eventually came out with a tongue-in-cheek “correct” version, “Winston tastes good AS a cigarette should.” But nowadays you have to explain what all that meant to people; the language has changed.

However, I admit there are still “errors” that I wince at, particularly with regards the first person singular pronoun, yes, “I”.

You would never say “The truck ran into I,” and yet “The truck ran into Mary and I” is accepted and, I admit, is beginning to sound normal. But “The truck ran into Mary and I’s car” still grates.
 

Politesse

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People tend to get more upset at common errors made by people attempting to master the register of the middle and upper classes; whether that means unironically including common basilectic terms ("like" "ain't") in otherwise "correct" acrolectic discourse, or over-correcting and applying the rules of correctness in places where someone raised in the upper classes would instinctively know they do not belong ("Do you love I?"). Either way, the speaker is unintentionally marking themselves as a recent caste escapee and shunned. The ability to do this is a large part of the reason why these dialectical shibboleths are constructed in the first place. The upper class person can speak as they normally do, have always talked, how their parents and friends talked in their home, and make very infrequent "errors" of English. But someone trying to reach those classes from beow has to learn all these arcane, illogical rules from scratch, and every conversation is a new trap laid to catch them out for their presumption in the attempt.
 

Tharmas

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People tend to get more upset at common errors made by people attempting to master the register of the middle and upper classes; whether that means unironically including common basilectic terms ("like" "ain't") in otherwise "correct" acrolectic discourse, or over-correcting and applying the rules of correctness in places where someone raised in the upper classes would instinctively know they do not belong ("Do you love I?"). Either way, the speaker is unintentionally marking themselves as a recent caste escapee and shunned. The ability to do this is a large part of the reason why these dialectical shibboleths are constructed in the first place. The upper class person can speak as they normally do, have always talked, how their parents and friends
That sounds right. I was raised in a mid to upper middle-class family (depending on your perspective) and was taught “correct” grammar as a matter of course. My own embrace of “street” usage sometimes shocked my late mother who, for instance, refused to accept African American usage as anything but bad grammar.

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (Moliere), and Mrs. Malaprop (Sheridan) come to mind, again exposing my middle-class education.

I myself was thinking along the lines that the English language was on a long historical curve of grammar simplification. For instance, we have dropped thee, thou, and ye from our vocabularies in favor of the simple “you.” I knew some Quakers who still used thee and thou into the 1960s, at least in Meeting. Using thee and thou was originally a political statement.

I recently completed a draft of a novel in which the narrator speaks “incorrectly” throughout, with what you might call street or basilectic usage. One reader accused me of cultural appropriation. I am re-thinking the whole thing now.

Thanks for teaching me "basilectic" and "acrolectic."
 

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I have no doubt that the world would be better if it contained less prescriptivists.

As an aside, why on Earth do we make a distinction between countable and uncountable when reducing their quantity, but not when increasing it?

The opposite of "less" is "more", but the opposite of "fewer" is also "more".

English really is totally fucking weird; The idea that someone could sensibly write down a bunch of universal and absolute rules for it is insane. It's a true democracy of several billion speakers, all of whom have equal right to decide how to say whatever it is they are saying. I don't recall seeing Strunk or White on any ballot papers.
But that's why English is so interesting and fun. No sarcasm. It has two mother roots and a lot of other languages feeding into it, making it a history lesson in every sentence.
 

pood

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I recently completed a draft of a novel in which the narrator speaks “incorrectly” throughout, with what you might call street or basilectic usage. One reader accused me of cultural appropriation. I am re-thinking the whole thing now.

There’s a relatively new forum in the Library section called Collaborations, in which I and another member are collaborating on a novel. I’m doing the writing and it’s based on his ideas. The forum is behind a firewall — viewable only by members here — which is necessary if you are trying to get your work published. Any work posted on the internet that can be found by search engines is considered “already published” by agents and publishers and they will not touch it. Our work has already surpassed 24,000 words.

If you’d like, you could start a thread there and post at least excerpts of your novel. I would very much like to see it.

I reject most critiques of so-called “wokeism” and “cancel culture” as the sour grapes of old white men who want to be publicly bigoted without being called out for it, but I am leery of this “cultural appropriation” idea, which as I’ve seen it depicted seems to hold that you cannot even write fiction about races or cultures different from your own without somehow illicitly hijacking those cultures. Assuming this is a correct description of the term, employing such an idea would largely empty our historical bookshelves. I’m very much against that (again, assuming I understand the idea correctly). I’d think that writing about other cultures, races and identities in a non-discriminatory and empathetic way would tend to increase cross-cultural understanding and certainly not diminish it. But some serious fiction holds up a mirror to the real world and is perforce unpleasant. Does that mean we should ignore or bowdlerize or censor it? Shall we throw out the magisterial corpus of Flan O’Conner because of her repeated use of the N word?

I’m largely against style manuals and grammar Naziism. Language is always changing. I have a volume of Canterbury Tales with the left pages written in Middle English and the right pages modern English. The difference — just some six hundred years apart! — is breathtaking.
 

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Assuming this is a correct description of the term
It is not, of course, any more than "woke" means obsessing over politically correct language, but the internet is vast and misunderstandings of cultural appropriation theory by both fans and opponents are commonplace. I think overzealous teenagers significantly feed the flames in both cases, but I find it harder to fault someone for going overboard in pursuit of a good cause than pursuing a bad one, or worse, being complacent. On the occasions when the charge of appropriation comes up, I find the best course of action is to address the charge with an open mind, and invite better dialogic participation. Most people respond well to being taken seriously. Not everyone, but most people.
 

pood

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Assuming this is a correct description of the term
It is not, of course, any more than "woke" means obsessing over politically correct language, but the internet is vast and misunderstandings of cultural appropriation theory by both fans and opponents are commonplace. I think overzealous teenagers significantly feed the flames in both cases, but I find it harder to fault someone for going overboard in pursuit of a good cause than pursuing a bad one, or worse, being complacent. On the occasions when the charge of appropriation comes up, I find the best course of action is to address the charge with an open mind, and invite better dialogic participation. Most people respond well to being taken seriously. Not everyone, but most people.

I haven’t looked into this “cultural appropriation“ thing very closely so I suspect I was getting distorted information second-hand, the reason for my qualifications. How would you describe it?
 

Politesse

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Assuming this is a correct description of the term
It is not, of course, any more than "woke" means obsessing over politically correct language, but the internet is vast and misunderstandings of cultural appropriation theory by both fans and opponents are commonplace. I think overzealous teenagers significantly feed the flames in both cases, but I find it harder to fault someone for going overboard in pursuit of a good cause than pursuing a bad one, or worse, being complacent. On the occasions when the charge of appropriation comes up, I find the best course of action is to address the charge with an open mind, and invite better dialogic participation. Most people respond well to being taken seriously. Not everyone, but most people.

I haven’t looked into this “cultural appropriation“ thing very closely so I suspect I was getting distorted information second-hand, the reason for my qualifications. How would you describe it?

Politically disenfranchised cultures are often exploited for material and political gain by colonizing powers, and artists and writers can become, consciously or unconsciously, agents of the process of colonization by participating in the overall extraction of value from subjugated peoples. Cultural appropriation is a situation of "borrowing" in which nothing is ever returned or shared, and it is most upsetting when it perverts or distorts the culture in a harmful way. If you're "just borrowing", the question you should be asking, is what gets returned when you're done "borrowing", and in what way. Stereotyped cultural protrayals seldom benefit the culture being portrayed, and in many ways, can lead to very direct harm, all while the coffers of the publisher are being merrily filled. If you pay attention to what issues are most likely to cause public outrage, it's not usually works that just include other cultures, but rather those that treat them with special, seemingly targeted disrespect.

So there's more than one dimension to the crime: appropriation can be financial in nature, but also sociological, legal, even spiritual. The common example of Native Americans being used as sports mascots, for instance, isn't bad because "it's bad to share between cultures" but because no sharing is actually going on. There's the monetary: When the Redsk*ns were playing, someone was making millions of dollars off the image every time they played, and not a dime of it went to anyone whose cultural symbols - the headdress, the weapons, etc - were being used to build the aesthetic of the team. There's the spiritual angle: headdresses have a meaning, they were never just decoration, but a connoted a particular social standing that is not reflected in being used as a toy. There's the issue of racial caricature: the mascot himself was obviously that. And there's the issue of incitement of violence, as mascots are frequent targets of "friendly" abuse by opposing teams, but in a within a post-genocide population still traumatized by the events of a very recent past history of violence, it can be pretty fucking traumatic to turn on the tv and see a crowd of whites lynching an effigy of a Native American, and it was never unheard of for such activities to spill over into literal violence against, say, Native-owned businesses, casinos, etc in the aftermath of a game. Finally, you have the issue of participation: because caricatures of Native people written and painted by whites abound, but Native authors and artists struggle to find publishers or venues, most Americans draw their entire understanding of Native culture from portrayals penned by whites rather than anything a Native person was involved with, and racist tropes of "tribal cultures" naturally abound in such portrayals.

In short, appropriation is real, and a real problem, but over-simplifying it as a rule like "whites can't write blacks" is not really getting at the heart of that problem. Very few people (not "no one", but very few people) are going to be upset if someone writes a story with Black characters, if their story rings true to the community and treats it with respect. But if you are a white person who hasn't spent much time with Black folks, you probably won't be successful in writing them in a way that does ring true to the community and treat it with respect, because your most ready access to Black culture has likewise been mediated and distorted by white artists, publishers, producers, labels, and so forth. The issue of unequal power underlies and amplifies this; a British person writing about an Italian character might write something dumb, but it's not worrying in the same way as a white American writing about Black culture, because Italians in Britain were never enslaved, and have little reason to fear that an incendiary work might lead to literal violence against their community. On the other hand, an anglophone New Yorker writing about an Italian neighborhood is in a different situation - there is a history of violence and discrimination in that case, and they can and should be careful not to promote painful stereotypes with their work that have more potential to come back around and hurt their neighbors. If every Italian in your novel is a gangster who speaks like someone's bad impression of Al Capone, it's fair for people to criticize your work.

I hope this was helpful; if there's interest, I'd be happy to start a new thread on the topic rather than possibly dragging this one off topic.
 
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