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Strunk rises from the grave again

September 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Q: What is the difference between Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and a zombie?

A: If you shoot it often enough, a zombie will lie down and stop moving.

I have read two articles on style today. One openly praises The Elements of Style; the other does not mention it but betrays its influence. Here is an extract from the first:

Call me fusty and old-fashioned, but I heart Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, now in its 956th edition. My students receive it like a gift and tend to have two reactions: “How come no one ever told me to read this book?” And “OMG, I’m so embarrassed—I’m a terrible writer and make tons of mistakes.” As Dorothy Parker said, “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

Rachel Toor, in the CHE.

Dr. Toor, the reason no one ever told your students to read this book is because the book is wrong so often that it is downright embarrassing. Read Geoffrey Pullum’s “50 Years of Stupid Grammar” for a selection of Strunk and White’s linguistic blunders.

This leads me to the second article, a newspaper column on style which repeats Strunk’s infamous advice on avoiding the passive. (I won’t cite or link this time because although the author is not named, there is a distinct possibility that I know them.) The column explains that in the passive voice (which is here inaccurately termed “the passive tense”) “the subject is not identified.” Yes, this writer (like Strunk) uses the passive voice while telling us why the passive is bad. The article also makes the classic mistake of confusing the subject of a sentence with the agent of the action.

So here is my own advice to writers: don’t take advice on writing from anyone who doesn’t understand English grammar, or who reverently quotes a source which shows similar ignorance.

Categories: Writing

University Rankings

September 16, 2010 Leave a comment

I noted today with pleasure that Bilkent, the university where I work, is now ranked at 112 in the Times Educational Supplement’s world league of universities. Coming in at 112 is not normally a cause for celebration — you don’t hear proud parents crowing “Our Johnny came 112th in the egg-and-spoon race!” for example. But this is in a league table of the 200 top universities in the world, and there are a lot of universities in the world. (I haven’t been able to find a precise number, but it’s definitely more than 10,000.) Moreover, the top twenty are all in Europe or North America, and there is only one other Turkish university there: Middle East Technical University, coming in at 183. That in itself is interesting, since for years we looked up to METU (and arguably METU still looks down on us).

The other thing that is striking is the Anglophone dominance, and in particular, the US dominance. Only 21 of the top 100 universities are from non-English-speaking countries, and some of those, like Hong Kong, Singapore and the Netherlands, could be counted as de facto Anglophone countries. This shouldn’t be too surprising, though, given the dominance of English in research publications, which means that if English isn’t your first, or at least a strong second language, you are at a decided disadvantage. I suspect one of the main reasons why Bilkent and METU made it into the top 200 was that they are English-medium universities. I could moan about the unfairness of English’s world language status (and indeed have done) but the only way to level the playing field in the short term is by raising competency in English. And that, of course, is where we EAP people come in.

Categories: Uncategorized