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A Grammatical Mess

Do you know what kind of writer I am? The kind that reads The Elements of Style and thinks, “Fuck that!” Fortunately, I’m not alone.

An article from The Chronicle of Higher Education. {Geoffrey K. Pullum is head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh and co-author (with Rodney Huddleston) of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002).}


50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice
By Geoffrey K. Pullum APRIL 17, 2009

 

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.

The authors won't be hurt by these critical remarks. They are long dead. William Strunk was a professor of English at Cornell about a hundred years ago, and E.B. White, later the much-admired author of Charlotte's Web, took English with him in 1919, purchasing as a required text the first edition, which Strunk had published privately. After Strunk's death, White published a New Yorker article reminiscing about him and was asked by Macmillan to revise and expand Elements for commercial publication. It took off like a rocket (in 1959) and has sold millions.

This was most unfortunate for the field of English grammar, because both authors were grammatical incompetents. Strunk had very little analytical understanding of syntax, White even less. Certainly White was a fine writer, but he was not qualified as a grammarian. Despite the post-1957 explosion of theoretical linguistics, Elements settled in as the primary vehicle through which grammar was taught to college students and presented to the general public, and the subject was stuck in the doldrums for the rest of the 20th century.

Notice what I am objecting to is not the style advice in Elements, which might best be described the way The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy describes Earth: mostly harmless. Some of the recommendations are vapid, like "Be clear" (how could one disagree?). Some are tautologous, like "Do not explain too much." (Explaining too much means explaining more than you should, so of course you shouldn't.) Many are useless, like "Omit needless words." (The students who know which words are needless don't need the instruction.) Even so, it doesn't hurt to lay such well-meant maxims before novice writers.

Even the truly silly advice, like "Do not inject opinion," doesn't really do harm. (No force on earth can prevent undergraduates from injecting opinion. And anyway, sometimes that is just what we want from them.) But despite the "Style" in the title, much in the book relates to grammar, and the advice on that topic does real damage. It is atrocious. Since today it provides just about all of the grammar instruction most Americans ever get, that is something of a tragedy. Following the platitudinous style recommendations of Elements would make your writing better if you knew how to follow them, but that is not true of the grammar stipulations.

"Use the active voice" is a typical section head. And the section in question opens with an attempt to discredit passive clauses that is either grammatically misguided or disingenuous.

We are told that the active clause "I will always remember my first trip to Boston" sounds much better than the corresponding passive "My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me." It sure does. But that's because a passive is always a stylistic train wreck when the subject refers to something newer and less established in the discourse than the agent (the noun phrase that follows "by").

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. (I'm the utterer, and the utterer always counts as familiar and well established in the discourse.) 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.

After this unpromising start, there is some fairly sensible style advice: The authors explicitly say they do not mean "that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice," which is "frequently convenient and sometimes necessary." They give good examples to show that the choice between active and passive may depend on the topic under discussion.

Sadly, writing tutors tend to ignore this moderation, and simply red-circle everything that looks like a passive, just as Microsoft Word's grammar checker underlines every passive in wavy green to signal that you should try to get rid of it. That overinterpretation is part of the damage that Strunk and White have unintentionally done. But it is not what I am most concerned about here.

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.)

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.)

The treatment of the passive is not an isolated slip. It is typical of Elements. 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.

"Put statements in positive form," they stipulate, in a section that seeks to prevent "not" from being used as "a means of evasion."

"Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs," they insist. (The motivation of this mysterious decree remains unclear to me.)

And then, in the very next sentence, comes a negative passive clause containing three adjectives: "The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place."

That's actually not just three strikes, it's four, because in addition to contravening "positive form" and "active voice" and "nouns and verbs," it has a relative clause ("that can pull") removed from what it belongs with (the adjective), which violates another edict: "Keep related words together."

"Keep related words together" is further explained in these terms: "The subject of a sentence and the principal verb should not, as a rule, be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning." That is a negative passive, containing an adjective, with the subject separated from the principal verb by a phrase ("as a rule") that could easily have been transferred to the beginning. Another quadruple violation.

The book's contempt for its own grammatical dictates seems almost willful, as if the authors were flaunting the fact that the rules don't apply to them. But I don't think they are. Given the evidence that they can't even tell actives from passives, my guess would be that it is sheer ignorance. They know a few terms, like "subject" and "verb" and "phrase," but they do not control them well enough to monitor and analyze the structure of what they write.

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. He feels there are circumstances where the split infinitive is not quite right, but he is simply not competent to spell out his intuition correctly in grammatical terms.

An entirely separate kind of grammatical inaccuracy in Elements is the mismatch with readily available evidence. Simple experiments (which students could perform for themselves using downloaded classic texts from sources like http://gutenberg.org) show that Strunk and White preferred to base their grammar claims on intuition and prejudice rather than established literary usage.

Consider the explicit instruction: "With none, use the singular verb when the word means 'no one' or 'not one.'" Is this a rule to be trusted? Let's investigate.

Try searching the script of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) for "none of us." There is one example of it as a subject: "None of us are perfect" (spoken by the learned Dr. Chasuble). It has plural agreement.

Download and search Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). It contains no cases of "none of us" with singular-inflected verbs, but one that takes the plural ("I think that none of us were surprised when we were asked to see Mrs. Harker a little before the time of sunset").

Examine the text of Lucy Maud Montgomery's popular novel Anne of Avonlea (1909). There are no singular examples, but one with the plural ("None of us ever do").

It seems to me that the stipulation in Elements is totally at variance not just with modern conversational English but also with literary usage back when Strunk was teaching and White was a boy.

Is the intelligent student supposed to believe that Stoker, Wilde, and Montgomery didn't know how to write? Did Strunk or White check even a single book to see what the evidence suggested? Did they have any evidence at all for the claim that the cases with plural agreement are errors? I don't think so.

There are many other cases of Strunk and White's being in conflict with readily verifiable facts about English. Consider the claim that a sentence should not begin with "however" in its connective adverb sense ("when the meaning is 'nevertheless'").

Searching for "however" at the beginnings of sentences and "however" elsewhere reveals that good authors alternate between placing the adverb first and placing it after the subject. The ratios vary. Mark Liberman, of the University of Pennsylvania, checked half a dozen of Mark Twain's books and found roughly seven instances of "however" at the beginning of a sentence for each three placed after the subject, whereas in five selected books by Henry James, the ratio was one to 15. In Dracula I found a ratio of about one to five. The evidence cannot possibly support a claim that "however" at the beginning of a sentence should be eschewed. Strunk and White are just wrong about the facts of English syntax.

The copy editor's old bugaboo about not using "which" to introduce a restrictive relative clause is also an instance of failure to look at the evidence. Elements as revised by White endorses that rule. But 19th-century authors whose prose was never forced through a 20th-century prescriptive copy-editing mill generally alternated between "which" and "that." (There seems to be a subtle distinction in meaning related to whether new information is being introduced.) There was never a period in the history of English when "which" at the beginning of a restrictive relative clause was an error.

In fact, as Jan Freeman, of The Boston Globe, noted (in her blog, The Word), Strunk himself used "which" in restrictive relative clauses. White not only added the anti-"which" rule to the book but also revised away the counterexamples that were present in his old professor's original text!

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.

The Goddess of Cake

by Allie, the gal who created the Alot Monster

 

My mom baked the most fantastic cake for my grandfather's 73rd birthday party. The cake was slathered in impossibly thick frosting and topped with an assortment of delightful creatures which my mom crafted out of mini-marshmallows and toothpicks.  To a four-year-old child, it was a thing of wonder – half toy, half cake and all glorious possibility.

 
 
But my mom knew that it was extremely important to keep the cake away from me because she knew that if I was allowed even a tiny amount of sugar, not only would I become intensely hyperactive, but the entire scope of my existence would funnel down to the singular goal of obtaining and ingesting more sugar.  My need for sugar would become so massive, that it would collapse in upon itself and create a vacuum into which even more sugar would be drawn until all the world had been stripped of sweetness.
 
 
So when I managed to climb onto the counter and grab a handful of cake while my mom's back was turned, an irreversible chain reaction was set into motion.
 
 
 
 
I had tasted cake and there was no going back.  My tiny body had morphed into a writhing mass of pure tenacity encased in a layer of desperation.  I would eat all of the cake or I would evaporate from the sheer power of my desire to eat it.
 
My mom had prepared the cake early in the day to get the task out of the way.  She thought she was being efficient, but really she had only ensured that she would be forced to spend the whole day protecting the cake from my all-encompassing need to eat it.  I followed her around doggedly, hoping that she would set the cake down – just for a moment.
 
 
My mom quickly tired of having to hold the cake out of my reach. She tried to hide the cake, but I found it almost immediately. She tried putting the cake on top of the refrigerator, but my freakish climbing abilities soon proved it to be an unsatisfactory solution.
 
 
Her next attempt at cake security involved putting the cake in the refrigerator and then placing a very heavy box in front of the refrigerator's door.
 
 
The box was far too heavy for me to move.  When I discovered that I couldn't move the box, I decided that the next best strategy would be to dramatically throw my body against it until my mom was forced to move it or allow me to destroy myself.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Surprisingly, this tactic did not garner much sympathy.
 
 
I went and played with my toys, but I did not enjoy it.
 
 
I had to stay focused.
 
 
 
 
 
 
I played vengefully for the rest of the afternoon. All of my toys died horrible deaths at least once. But I never lost sight of my goal.
 
My mom finally came to get me. She handed me a dress and told me to put it on because we were leaving for the party soon. I put the dress on backwards just to make her life slightly more difficult.
 
I was herded into the car and strapped securely into my car seat.  As if to taunt me, my mom placed the cake in the passenger seat, just out of my reach.
 
 
We arrived at my grandparents' house and I was immediately accosted by my doting grandmother while my mom walked away holding the cake.
 
 
I could see my mom and the cake disappearing into the hallway as I watched helplessly.  I struggled against my grandmother's loving embrace, but my efforts were futile.  I heard the sound of a door shutting and then a lock sliding into place.  My mom had locked the cake in the back bedroom.  How was I going to get to it now?  I hadn't yet learned the art of lock-picking and I wasn't nearly strong enough to kick the door in.  It felt as though all my life's aspirations were slipping away from me in a landslide of tragedy.  How could they do this to me?  How could they just sit there placidly as my reason for living slowly faded from my grasp?  I couldn't take it.  My little mind began to crumble.
 
And then, right there in my grandmother's arms, I lapsed into a full-scale psychological meltdown. My collective frustrations burst forth from my tiny body like bees from a nest that had just been pelted with a rock.
 
 
It was unanimously decided that I would need to go play outside until I was able to regain my composure and stop yelling and punching.  I was banished to the patio where I stood peering dolefully through the sliding glass door, trying to look as pitiful as possible.
 
 
I knew the cake was locked securely in the bedroom, but if I could just get them to let me inside… maybe.  Maybe I could find a way to get to it.  After all, desperation breeds ingenuity.  I could possibly build an explosive device or some sort of pulley system.  I had to try.  But at that point, my only real option was to manipulate their emotions so they'd pity me and willfully allow me to get closer to the cake.
 
When my theatrics failed to produce the desired results, I resorted to crying very loudly, right up against the glass.
 
 
I carried on in that fashion until my mom poked her head outside and, instead of taking pity on me and warmly inviting me back inside as I had hoped, told me to go play in the side yard because I was fogging up the glass and my inconsolable sobbing was upsetting my grandmother.
 
I trudged around to the side of the house, glaring reproachfully over my shoulder and thinking about how sorry my mom would be if I were to die out there.  She'd wish she would have listened. She'd wish she had given me a piece of cake.  But it would be too late.
 
 
 
But as I rounded the corner, the personal tragedy I was constructing in my imagination was interrupted by a sliver of hope.
 
 
Just above my head, there was a window.  On the other side of that particular window was the room in which my mom  had locked the cake.  The window was open.
 
 
 
The window was covered by a screen, but my dad had shown me how to remove a screen as a preemptive safety measure in case I was  trapped in a fire and he couldn't get to me and I turned out to be too stupid to figure out how to kick in a screen to escape death by burning.
 
I clambered up the side of the house and pushed the screen with all my strength.
 
 
It gave way, and suddenly there I was – mere feet from the cake, unimpeded by even a single obstacle.
 
 
I couldn't fully believe what had just occurred.  I crept slowly – reverently – toward the cake, my body quivering with anticipation.  It was mine.  All mine.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
I ate the entire cake.  At one point, I remember becoming aware of the oppressive fullness building inside of me, but I kept eating out of a combination of spite and stubbornness.  No one could tell me not to eat an entire cake – not my mom, not Santa, not God – no one.  I would eat cake whenever I damn well pleased.  It was my cake and everyone else could go fuck themselves.
 
..
 
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, my mother suddenly noticed that she hadn't heard my tortured sobbing in a while.
 
 
She became concerned because it was unusual for my tantrums to stop on their own like that, so she went looking for me.
 
When she couldn't find me anywhere, she finally thought to unlock the bedroom door and peek inside.
 
 
And there I was.
 
 
I spent the rest of the evening in a hyperglycemic fit, alternately running around like a maniac and regurgitating the multi-colored remains of my conquest all over my grandparents' carpet.  I was so miserable, but my suffering was small compared to the satisfaction I felt every time my horrible, conniving mother had to watch me retch up another rainbow of sweet, semi-digested success: this is for you, mom.  This is what happens when you try to get between me and cake – I silently challenged her to try again to prevent me from obtaining something I wanted.  Just once.  Just to see what would happen.  It didn't matter how violently ill I felt, in that moment, I was a god – the god of cake – and I was unstoppable.

T-11 Days

Look, I'm actually blogging, you guys!

or

Same Man, Different Story

In case you're wondering what happened to my excitement about Wizard World Cleveland (and why I mysteriously stopped posting about it), Jamie canceled. In fact, out of four cons this year, he's done a bunk on half. (I'm waiting to see what happens in two weeks…if it's a success, he just has a problem with Wizard World.) And–to add insult to injury–I found out about it on a day that was already full of high winds, cat worries and panic attacks. (Ugh!)

If you recall, I was supposed to head to Cleveland over the weekend of March 17. On the eighth, I started seeing rumors floating around the internet that Jamie (and MCH) had canceled, but with no explanation to what had happened. Sure enough–their pictures were gone from the WW website. It took more than twenty-four hours for the convention to come out and say something, by which time I'd already read it on other sites. MCH had booked a movie and Jamie had a "movie opportunity", leaving Jaime Murray and Jen Carpenter by themselves. (Jen was completely alone in STL, as Christian Camargo backed out even before that point.) Yeah, well, now I think the "opportunity" is a lie his agent told WW (and I don't care if he ends up reading this), because I doubt he has to audition for things very much anymore; and even if he does, I imagine he usually gets the part, which means he wouldn't have showed up for a con the following weekend!

That's right. He actually attended Heroes and Villains Fan Fest in Chicago the weekend of the twenty-fourth. I was already angry at him to begin with, but I would've played hell to pull a turnaround in less than two weeks to go to Chicago–especially since I was convinced he'd get the role and not show up. (*growl*)

Oh, he didn't show up, all right. To WW-STL! This time, there was nothing in advance. The only way I'd discovered he'd done another bunk (and concluded therefore that he probably just didn't like Wizard World) is that I started hearing that he'd shown up for a movie screening. In Los Angeles. I checked the site and sure enough–his picture was gone.

(Honestly, it's a good thing I'm going to be a melty mess in two weeks, or else we'd end up Having A Talk, and security would probably kick me out for "causing a scene".)

Fortunately, I have very little faith in my self-confidence and bought travel insurance because I thought I'd back out. (Plus, being March, there was also the probability that it would snow so hard my flight would be canceled, in which case I'd be covered for hotel, food, etcetera. But I wasn't thinking of that part when I bought it.) My flight came back as a voucher to be used by December 7, and Travelocity will pay the $200 rebooking fee. (I'd like to see my friend in Minnesota, but she hasn't been online in more than a month, so I might end up going to Vegas for the first time in nearly a decade.) The hotel was a total refund, and I managed to sell my weekend pass at a loss on Craigslist. (Buyer: This price is probably too low… | Me: You're the only offer I've gotten and it's still better than losing money. Take it!) My only losses, then, were on the pass and the business cards and shirts I bought.

At least until the middle of last month. (Anyone that says the number thirteen is unlucky can shove it…or they can on the twenty-second when this is all over and has been a success.)

Thursday the thirteenth (of April…only slightly less scary [*giggle*]), I saw a press release that didn't make any sense…it was just kind of a half-assed bio (of Jamie). Then, in the header, I see "Motor City Comic Con".

"Really?" said I. After all, there is only one Motor City, and it's in my dear, beautiful, (fucking) beloved MICHIGAN.

Checked the site. Sure enough.


hate GIFs, so you know how important this is to me…

I wanted to wait until they posted panel info, but after they told me that they're not doing it 'til Wednesday (they are soo much more responsive to fans than WW), I decided to take a risk and buy tickets for Friday and Saturday only. Originally, I was just going to do Friday (Jamie being the most important…the other celebs and the merchandise not so much), but then I realized that all the good panels will probably be on Saturday. (I'm also hoping for a Hearthstone tourney, but I don't think I'm going to be that lucky.) So I’m leaving for Novi Thursday the eighteenth and I’ll come back on Sunday the twenty-first. (Unless there is a tourney and it runs into Sunday [and I’m still in it at that point]. Then I’ll make other plans.)

 

Aaand I just lost my train of thought while I was eating lunch. Oh well…you have the basics. Wish me luck!

Aside

The Book that Won’t Be Written

This isn’t the sort of entry I was planning, but I feel slightly guilty for not having posted anything original since my aborted trip to Cleveland. (I don’t know why I care if I have very few readers…posterity, maybe?) But that’s what asides are for–short posts. (That’s my opinion, anyway.)


I’ve been struggling to write The Devil’s Bride for months and haven’t gotten anywhere, despite starting over repeatedly–and taking several different approaches besides. Just when I think I want to give up, I start getting signs from the universe…Israeli viewers on my blog…my SnackCrate coming today…from Brazil. (My ex-muse loves Brazil and is a capoeirista.) So now I’m confused.

And still writer’s blocked.

Grr.

Aside

Fake Commandments (and Other Funnies)

I confess to being terrible at blogging lately. I owe everyone an explanation as to what happened with Cleveland–or at least those that didn't see what happened on Facebook–but I'm just too damn addicted to my games lately to blog, or accomplish much of anything else.

And yet, I still have time to slap something together with the fake commandments that are trending on Twitter! (But that's partially copy/paste, so it cuts down on time.)


What happens if we mix the second commandment with the second amendment?

What if Hashem was a Southerner?

These simply make me snicker:

This new beatitude seems like a good one to keep around–especially for those who work in retail!

Don’t forget mine!

Greg you know about, but the lovely Tom Ellis, from Lucifer? Him, too.

I couldn't find one of him in costume, so here's one of him cruising on his current show:

This one, I'm sorry to say, we've all (surely) broken–especially those of us who got broadband after our neighbors:


Hope you enjoyed these! If you celebrate the holiday, have a good day with your family. ♥

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