Strunk & White . . . stinks

I so hope that Geoffrey Pullam’s cogent critique of The Elements of Style by Strunk & White helps to bury this precious little tome.  While I’ll not celebrate the losses suffered by Macmillan if the little book stops selling jillions of copies, it would be well if I no longer had to hear people who purported to be writers stating this book is some sort of English grammar Bible.  It’s a little piece of crap that even I, who was a real grammar moron, thought was dumb when it was first forced on me in college, oh so many years ago.

Having suffered through an internet stonehead’s criticisms (he’s not so bad; he didn’t mean most of it)of my “Guidelines for Critique,” I might even feel sympathetic to the deceased, much-lauded recipients of Pullam’s analysis.  Might.  I don’t feel very sympathetic, even though White authored one of my favorite books, Charlotte’s Web.

That said, Pullam refreshed my memory as to why 99% of students and others have no clue as to what the passive voice is.  To avoid in fiction writing?  Well, that depends upon one’s aims, goals and the voice of the story.  Pullam correctly points up that hardly any of Strunk and White’s examples of passive voice are passive voice, which is a reversal of active subject-verb order in a sentence.  Most of the examples simply use the past tense form of the verb “to be.”  The verb “to be” is a most valuable verbal construct in English.  It indicates time and condition.  To eliminate it is — moronic.

As Geoffrey Pullam not unkindly characterizes Strunk and White.  RIP.  Please.



Strunk & White . . . stinks — 9 Comments

  1. Oh, is that where so much passive voice confusion comes from? I thought it was some kind of mass hallucination!

  2. My mother adored Elements of Style and proselytized fiercely in its behalf. When I finally read it, I got to the part about passive voice, and, in genuine perplexion, asked if this meant they wanted everything in present tense? Because an awful lot of English fiction does use that pesky “to be” verb form, and not all of it was particularly passive. My mother glowered but didn’t mention Strunk and White any more. (I think a lot of her ideas about it came from having taken Latin in high school, and her belief that Latin was the perfect model for English grammar, which…just, No.)

  3. When I reread that passage in the memorial tribute, it all became clear. I’ve had so many students say teachers told them to go through and cross out all forms of the verb “to be.” Now I know why.

  4. Mad, I think the book’s adherents mean well. I was assigned this book several times in college. I didn’t buy extra copies, of course, but the one I have is that college copy. I was never asked to read it in any class, just told to buy it. We never went over a thing in it.

    When I read this article I started laughing, because I wondered if anyone would dare to say the Emperor had no clothes. Yeah! And he’s not a sight anyone would want to see like that . . .

  5. I always had trouble with Elements of Style, because things just wouldn’t stick in my hands, if you will. I did try to learn the which/that rule — mainly because Roger Zelazny told a story once about the copy editor removing “which” and putting “that” no matter how it was used in the sentence. He suggested it as a trivial persuit clue: “What five letter word does not appear in LORD OF LIGHT?” I learn best hands on, so reading Chicago manual and Words Into Type got me only so far.

    I’m big on finding examples. Amy, what grammar book would you suggest, as opposed to Elements of Style?

  6. Years ago, when I first started with the legal publisher I work for, I had a copy editor who was obsessed with the which/that rule. Several people have tried to explain it to me in terms of dependent clauses and what not, but they never made any sense. For purposes of not offending copy editors who are obsessed with it, I apply the following rule: You can use “which” if there’s a comma in front of it; otherwise, use that.

    BTW, I have worked as an editor — doing both substantive editing and copy editing — and was raised by an editor who also did both. I have the highest regard for good editing, and very little respect for nonsense like an obsession with “which” and “that,” not to mention the misguided interpretation of the passive voice.

  7. For years I’ve been puzzled by the inability of many native speakers of English, most of them American, to determine what is and isn’t passive voice. I’ve actually gotten into fights about it online and had people refuse to believe me that “He was eating” is not passive voice, because I was not a native speaker. Well, I’m not, but I teach college level linguistics and I make sure that my students know the difference.

    I was surprised to find out that all the confusion over the passive voice was due to one book, a book which is praised as the style bible, even though it is clearly wrong. There are so many good grammar books out there, so why are colleges sticking to this one?

  8. I don’t think colleges assign Strunk & White too much any more. We assign A Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker. This is an excellent basic grammar and style resource. It’s focused on writing and documenting various styles of research papers. However, using it for understanding basic grammar? It’s excellent. It also shows that these issues aren’t “dead,” but are in constant flux and change. One thing that is changing right now is the use of a singular, gender-based pronoun. Common speech uses the plural pronoun, gender-free (they/them). I always try to break students of this, but it’s changing, and not as major a point any longer.

    As to passive voice? How dumb can it be – really? My apologies for the stubborn native English speakers, Cora. Once people are exposed to a foreign language, it helps. The differing grammar and syntax structures force native speakers to examine their language. At least, they will learn pronoun case and agreement. Passive voice recognition? Not so much . . .

    The basic website for the Hacker is You can get to a lot of language and grammar debates.

    Great blog tip, by the way, Nancy Jane! I love it!