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Did Strunk & White Give “Stupid Advice”?

Last month marked the 50th Anniversary of The Elements of Style, a beacon for generations of lawyers. How did English scholar Geoffrey Pullum celebrate?1 By calling Strunk & White “grammatical incompetents” whose beloved book does “real damage” through its “atrocious” advice.

Guilty as charged?

Count One:

The authors’ attempt to discredit the passive voice is “either grammatically misguided or disingenuous,” part of “the book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity.”

My verdict: Mixed.

In legal writing, as in all professional writing, overusing the passive voice will make your writing wordy and abstract.

You can use the passive occasionally: when the actor is self-evident or unimportant (“The motion was denied”) or when you want to keep the subject the same throughout the sentence (“The regulation applies to hedge funds, but it has yet to be tested by the courts”).

Otherwise, favor the active voice, as Strunk & White suggest.

That said, I do agree with Pullum that some of Strunk & White’s examples are misleading, if not “misguided.” Pullum is outraged that The Elements of Style suggests changing “there were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” to “dead leaves covered the ground.”

Pullum’s complaint: The first version isn’t passive—it’s just weak. Fair enough, but Strunk & White’s advice—favor active transitive verbs and avoid weak openers such as “there were”—still holds true. As the authors note, strong verbs will make your writing “lively and emphatic.”

Count Two:

The authors’ preference for nouns and verbs rather than adjectives and adverbs is a “mysterious decree” whose motivation is “unclear.”

My verdict: Not guilty.

Pullum has some fun here, citing Strunk & White’s use of the phrase “weak or inaccurate noun” to show how they allegedly violate their own anti-adjective advice. Yet “weak” and “inaccurate” are objective adjectives that tell you something specific about the noun “noun.” No writing experts, including Strunk & White, object to qualifiers such as those.

But for all other qualifiers—particularly those that modify limp nouns or verbs—Strunk & White are right. In fact, one of the best ways to improve your writing is to change adverb-verb or adjective-noun combinations into more precise verbs or nouns.

So, for example, when Pullum claims that The Elements of Style has “significantly degraded” American students’ grasp of grammar, he might have said instead that the book has “destroyed” it. And when he says that Strunk & White fail to notice their own “egregious flouting of” their book’s own rules, he might have accused them of failing to notice their own “defiance.”

Count Three:

The authors engage in “an unnecessary piece of bossiness” when they claim that you should avoid splitting infinitives unless you want to stress the adverb.

My verdict: Not guilty.

Strunk & White have it right here as well. Many experts have tried to lift the split-infinitive ban. After all, famous writers have been splitting infinitives since the 14th century, as our two criticized authors acknowledge. And the main case for the ban—that Latin infinitives are just one word–is hardly persuasive.

Even so, in a 1988 survey, only 50% of the American Heritage Usage Panel allowed splitting infinitives with one adverb as in “The move allowed the company to legally pay the employees severance payments,” and almost no members of the panel allowed a split with more than one adverb (“to gradually, systematically, and economically relieve this burden”). Many, though not all, contemporary usage manuals agree with the naysayers.

I’ll echo Strunk & White here: in this conservative profession, you should avoid splitting infinitives in general, though you can do so for clarity (“Plaintiff failed to properly allege damages”) or for emphasis (“To boldly go where no court has gone before”).

Interim conclusion:

Don’t throw away your Elements of Style just yet.

In the next newsletter, I’ll consider three more charges against Strunk & White.

_____

  1. Geoffrey Pullum, “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” The Chronicle Review (April 17, 2009).

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