Monday, April 13, 2009

"50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice"

That's the title of Professor Geoffrey Pullum's review essay in The Chronicle Review upon the 50th anniversary of Strunk and White's classic little book, The Elements of Style. Here's the opening:
April 16 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a little book that is loved and admired throughout American academe. Celebrations, readings, and toasts are being held, and a commemorative edition has been released.

I won't be celebrating.

The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.

Calling them "grammar incompetents" with "uninformed bossiness," and including examples to demonstrate his point, Professor Pullum concludes:
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.
Read the whole informative piece.

I wrote to Professor Pullum--who is head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh--asking what he would recommend in its place. He was kind enough to respond:
Nearly all the people who have written to me about the Chronicle article have asked me to name an alternative book. I wish there was one. I certainly don't mean to imply that I have provided one myself. (The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language [Huddleston & Pullum, 2002] is of course an 1860-page reference grammar for serious scholars, possibly of some use to grammar course designers, but not really intended for students at all. A Student's Introduction to English Grammar [Huddleston & Pullum, 2005] is a fairly tough undergraduate textbook in grammar alone, with no how-to-write advice.)

The best book of the relevant type that I have seen is Joseph Williams' book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, which is excellent. Try that. It doesn't try to do a lot of grammar description, and it doesn't offer a long list of commonly-misused constructions, but it is very sensible on how to write and what the role of grammar facts should be.

For more detail on usage, the go-to guide is Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, which is simply marvelous, and quite cheap (but it's a substantial reference book, not a little pamphlet).