Skip to content

Down with Strunk & White

Geoff Pullum, linguist and (among other things) contributor to the magnificent Language Log,  has a sharp critique of Strunk & White at the Chronicle of Higher Education, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the publication of their little book:

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.


Send the whole thing to your students, colleagues, and/or favorite law review editors.

6 thoughts on “Down with Strunk & White”

  1. This sentence is from Judge Kozinski in White v. Samsung, which I’m teaching today:

    “And scads of copyright holders see purple when their creations are made fun of.”

    Note that he begins that sentence with “and” and ends it with “of.”

  2. So I have a short essay on S&W, and Jonathan Yardley last year in the Washington Post explained much better than I ever could why S&W is important.

    Sure, there are better manuals for rules of grammar, and there better manuals for style (Zinsser among them), but has anyone else made the serial comma something that is of life-or-death importance to millions?

  3. Off of Bruce: It seems that the ability to rail against S&W presumes a grasp of writing that many may lack. Although Finding Forrester has flaws the scene where they discuss breaking rules but knowing how to do so and why makes that point rather well. Or as Orwell put it in Politics and the English Language:

    (i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. (ii) Never us a long word where a short one will do. (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. (iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active. (v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. (vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

    VI seems to be the key to handling S&W’s flaws.

    Then again the slavish love of the Blue Book (absurd debates about citing to print or online versions, the placement of a comma, use of supra, and so on) may make me love S&W for its rather simple system compared to BB.

  4. Deven — Finding Forrester has flaws? Really, seriously. I love that movie.

    On the merits: There is a “rules v. standards” jurisprudential point buried here, which I didn’t bother to make in the original post. People love rules, and they especially love rules when they don’t have the time or training to care about the right answer or right method. Sometimes the chosen rule gives the right answer or method, and sometimes simply choosing a rule (any rule) happens to be welfare-maximizing simply because of costs avoided. But even beloved rules aren’t necessarily good rules.

Comments are closed.