February 18, 2005

The blowing of Strunk and White's rules off

One additional word on Mark's bedtime reading ruminations, which are on their own a magnificent brief for the prosecution concerning the charges against E. B. White of being a linguistic hypocrite. One of the sternest strictures delivered in Strunk & White's stupid little book is the prohibition on the use of adjectives and adverbs. Simply do not use them, they say: "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs" (The Elements of Style, p. 71). Now, Mark happens to quote exactly 406 words from the book of White's essays that he fell asleep over. I have been over those 406 words and carefully identified the adjectives and adverbs. To be scrupulously fair to White, I omitted the New that occurs in every occurrence of The New Yorker, and I did not count items that would traditionally be classified as adjectives or adverbs where The Cambridge Grammar provides evidence that those classifications are wrong. Despite this lowering of the count (full details on request), there are 52 adjective and adverb tokens in White's 406 words. That's almost 13 percent of the total word count (the adjectives alone make up about 8 percent of the word tokens). As I have said before (and it has made many people quite edgy), it is not just that Strunk & White offer crappy usage advice; it's that they demonstrate that their advice is crappy whenever they write, because they are utterly unable to follow their own rules, even on a bet. And as Mark says, nor should they. White isn't at all a bad writer. But the dimwitted ukases that his book with Strunk promulgates have nothing to do with good writing or elegant style.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 18, 2005 01:18 AM