Bah, Humbug: 50 Years of Bad Grammar Advice

Once again, I ran into a post someplace or other lauding Strunk and White. And once again, I immediately thought of this article, “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” by Geoffrey Pullum, who is or at least was at the time the head of the linguistics and English department at the University of Edinburgh. I read this article a good long time ago, but it stuck with me, for obvious reasons — Pullum is not a guy who pulls punches.

For me to report that I paid my bill by saying “The bill was paid by me,” with no stress on “me,” would sound inane. But that is no argument against passives generally. “The bill was paid by an anonymous benefactor” sounds perfectly natural. Strunk and White are denigrating the passive by presenting an invented example of it deliberately designed to sound inept.

What concerns me is that the bias against the passive is being retailed by a pair of authors so grammatically clueless that they don’t know what is a passive construction and what isn’t. Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses. “At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard” is correctly identified as a passive clause, but the other three are all errors: “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” has no sign of the passive in it anywhere. “It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had” also contains nothing that is even reminiscent of the passive construction. “The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired” is presumably fingered as passive because of “impaired,” but that’s a mistake. It’s an adjective here. “Become” doesn’t allow a following passive clause. (Notice, for example, that “A new edition became issued by the publishers” is not grammatical.)

This passage has stuck in my head because first, it’s outrageous that advice about passive voice is promulgated using examples that are not passive; and second, it annoys me tremendously that when actual passive constructions are used to advise against passive, the examples given are always entirely artificial and ridiculous, created specifically to make the passive voice look awkward. Strunk and White might have contributed to that, but everybody does it . The ball was kicked by Bob, the water was drunk by me, those examples are designed to look awful and that’s absolutely infuriating because English teachers and other authorities ought to know better.

Passive voice is absolutely correct — and sounds absolutely correct – when it’s used properly. My dog was hit by a car last night. Rinderpest was declared eliminated in 2011. Last year, 27 million bushels of rice were produced by farmers in Thailand.

I should pause to ask: do you see why the examples used by Strunk and White are or are not passive?

At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heardby me. –> the subject, “me” or whatever, has been left out, but is understood to exist even though it hasn’t been specified. This is the same as Rinderpest was declared eliminated in 2011 … –> by The World Organization for Animal Health, which is a mouthful, and that’s why someone might choose to leave it out. The fact that rinderpest was eliminated is the important thing.

There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the groundby … …. … –> there isn’t anything there. You can’t fill in a “by” phrase at the end. The subject in this sentence is one of the fake subjects so common in English: “There.” English so strongly prefers the subject – verb – object construction that we frequently use fake subjects, particularly “there” or “it,” in order to have something to put in the place of the subject. But this sentence does have a grammatical subject in the front, no matter how fake. It’s just a perfectly ordinary active voice past tense sentence. It doesn’t have anything to do with the passive voice.

Pullem goes on:

These examples can be found all over the Web in study guides for freshman composition classes. (Try a Google search on “great number of dead leaves lying.”) I have been told several times, by both students and linguistics-faculty members, about writing instructors who think every occurrence of “be” is to be condemned for being “passive.” No wonder, if Elements is their grammar bible. It is typical for college graduates today to be unable to distinguish active from passive clauses. They often equate the grammatical notion of being passive with the semantic one of not specifying the agent of an action. (They think “a bus exploded” is passive because it doesn’t say whether terrorists did it.)

And as I say, I think of this every. single. time I see a reference to how great Strunk and White is as a style guide. It’s not great. It’s annoyingly unhelpful when it comes to style and frequently wrong when it comes to grammar.

I mean, saying “Don’t be wordy” or “avoid awkward constructions” is all very well, but what is a novice writer actually supposed to do with style advice like that? If the writer has no sense of what counts as “wordy” or “awkward,” then all the advice in the world is pointless.

Pullem goes on:

There is of course nothing wrong with writing passives and negatives and adjectives and adverbs. I’m not nitpicking the authors’ writing style. White, in particular, often wrote beautifully, and his old professor would have been proud of him. What’s wrong is that the grammatical advice proffered in Elements is so misplaced and inaccurate that counterexamples often show up in the authors’ own prose on the very same page.

Some of the claims about syntax are plainly false despite being respected by the authors. For example, Chapter IV, in an unnecessary piece of bossiness, says that the split infinitive “should be avoided unless the writer wishes to place unusual stress on the adverb.”

The bossiness is unnecessary because the split infinitive has always been grammatical and does not need to be avoided. (The authors actually knew that. Strunk’s original version never even mentioned split infinitives. White added both the above remark and the further reference, in Chapter V, admitting that “some infinitives seem to improve on being split.”) But what interests me here is the descriptive claim about stress on the adverb. It is completely wrong. Tucking the adverb in before the verb actually de-emphasizes the adverb, so a sentence like “The dean’s statements tend to completely polarize the faculty” places the stress on polarizing the faculty.

The way to stress the completeness of the polarization would be to write, “The dean’s statements tend to polarize the faculty completely.” This is actually implied by an earlier section of the book headed “Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end,” yet White still gets it wrong.

I will add to the above indictment of advice to avoid splitting infinitives:

Thus much and more; and yet thou lovs’t me not,
And never wilt! Love dwells not in our will
Nor can I blame thee, though it be my lot
To strongly, wrongly, vainly love thee still.

— Byron, “Love and Death.”

And that sounds so fabulous to the ear that frankly this single example ought to, all by itself, drive a stake through the advice never to split infinitives. The better advice is to drop the adverb into the infinitive or put it somewhere else, whatever works best for the actual individual sentence. But that’s more difficult advice to follow, I suppose, and thus we get all this dogmatic advice that would not be at all helpful even if it were generally correct, which in Strunk and White, it frequently isn’t.

You can split other verb forms too, by the way, even though you may see advice not to. If you don’t worry about it, you’ll do it without without noticing and it will be fine, as here:

They had previously been quite reckless in their behaviour; often making a great uproar; quarrelling among themselves, fighting, dancing, and singing. — Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge

Why should I complain, when we both have merely done our duty and will surely be the happier for it in the end? — Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

I got both the above quotes from this helpful post right here, which declares the advice not to split verbs is the stupidest advice in the AP stylebook. I wouldn’t know, not having read the AP stylebook, but certainly it’s better to put the adverbs wherever they sound best rather than follow arbitrary rules that one should put them in some specific location no matter how awkward that may be. I mention this because Strunk and White is by no means the only style guide that is wrong about important elements of style and grammar. One might also notice that advice to avoid adverbs is not followed by Dickens or Alcott. That is because this also is stupid advice.

I realize that’s quite a rant to be inspired by happening across one of ten thousand comments about how fantastic Strunk and White is as a style reference, but I do think of this — much more briefly — whenever I see that kind of comment. I emphatically suggest that prospective writers develop their feel from style via reading great writing, not from style guides, and most certainly not from style guides that offer proscriptive advice about the passive voice using examples that are not passive voice.

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6 thoughts on “Bah, Humbug: 50 Years of Bad Grammar Advice”

  1. The really fun part is that “At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard” could easily be recast as “At dawn the crowing of a rooster resounded” without even introducing a listener.

  2. Yes, and hey, that would give you a chance to use “resounded” in a sentence, which is always good! I’m not sure I’ve ever used that word…

  3. To be fair, Strunk and White were focused on bad technical writing, which is myriad. Alas, we have replaced the passive voice with the first plural of “to find” and “to see”.
    So much of this hogwash could be replaced by simple recipes and bullet lists.

    I sometimes find “we see” to be particularly insulting, as you may see it, but I sure don’t.

  4. Ah, yes, Pete, that is certainly a familiar element of what we might perhaps call the Classic Bureaucratic Bullshit Style.

    I almost sort of kind of enjoy CBB style in very small doses. I’m writing a report in that style now.

  5. I was just talking with a coworker yesterday about the “never end a sentence with a preposition rule,” which is widely debunked as a “rule” but lives on as a hard habit.

    Anyway, I think passive voice can be fine as long as it doesn’t roll over into passive aggressive (grin).

  6. I think a lot of sentences that end with a preposition, shouldn’t. Ditto for clauses. Sometimes it sounds fine, but a lot of the time it actually does sound awkward and actually should be avoided.

    A preposition is something you are never to end a sentence with. — genuinely awkward, which is why it’s funny.

    This is Bob, the guy I told you about. — not awkward, fine.

    So, as always, the rule is best read: “Don’t end a sentence (or clause) with a preposition if that sounds bad; but it’s fine if it sounds smooth and natural.”

    And for authors, “Don’t end a sentence (or a clause) with a preposition if you’re writing in a formal register — unless it really, truly sounds better and then it’s fine.”

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