12 April 2009

Omit Needless Advice

Geoffrey Pullum, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, is not celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Strunk & White -- in an essay at The Chronicle Review, he writes:
The book's toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules. They can't help it, because they don't know how to identify what they condemn.
It's a wonderful take-down, the best I've encountered since Louis Menand's examination of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves ("Why would a person who is not just vague about the rules but disinclined to follow them bother to produce a guide to punctuation?").

The power and popularity of such books is astounding. Both books were quite popular in the high school English departments I worked at, and Strunk & White was often assigned to students. I'm not against teaching basic grammar (I've done it most of my years of teaching), but if you're going to teach grammar, don't teach from books that are, as often as not, incontrovertibly wrong.


  1. Thanks for that. Tis the most entertaining article I have read in ages.

    There are many copyeditors I would love to kill who insist on unsplitting my infinitives and making my characters speak in the increasingly non-existent subjunctive. Tis completely insane.

    Justine Larbalestier

  2. How about recommending some great grammar books?

  3. Huddleston & Pullum's A Student's Introduction to English Grammar is good, though complex and pricey (it's aimed at the college textbook market).

    For a more lively exploration, though not really a handbook for reference, check out Far from the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log, which Pullum also co-authored -- I'm a big Language Log fan.

    Also, Grammar Girl is fun and generally accurate and honest. I haven't read her book, but if I were still teaching high school, I would seriously consider using it. A friend of mine with a linguistics background played many of the podcasts in her high school class, and said they were really well received.

    Among popular, nonspecialist books, the ones I have kept around are Patricia O'Connor's Woe is I and Karen Gordon's Deluxe Transitive Vampire and The New Well-Tempered Sentence. You need to take everything O'Connor says with some big grains of salt and a healthy dose of skepticism, but she's marginally better than S&W. The Gordon books I've had for years and enjoy for their humor, illustrations, and copious examples.

    In one of her books, Ursula LeGuin recommended Harper's English Grammar by John Opdycke, so I picked up a copy (it's out of print, but inexpensive paperbacks seem to be everywhere) and have used it occasionally.

    My absolute favorite is a book that's quite hard to get -- Patterns of English by Paul Roberts. I've stolen a lot of the material from that book for handouts in classes, and the students have repeatedly told me it made things clearer than ever before. Roberts provides a great bridge between traditional grammar and descriptive grammar.

    And I also think every home should own a copy of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage.