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Strunk rises from the grave again

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.

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