Sunday, April 12, 2009

The lack of style

Check out almost any book on 'how to write' and you'll find absurd advice about not using adjectives and adverbs, avoiding split infinitives, making sure you rarely use the passive voice. For a while I used to think this advice had some value behind it, but I became convinced in the end that most of it was valueless: it lessened the ways in which you could write with style, and was usually at odds with the way real writers actually write.
It seems as though much of the blame may be put at the feet of the venerable Strunk and White book, The Elements of Style. In an article entitled, 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice, Geoffrey Pullum certainly believes the blame should be. He lists a number of downright errors in the book, and shows how even the two authors inadvertently ignored their own advice - within their own pages.
As Pullum notes, 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. (White was also the author of Stuart Little.)
Nowadays, if I read a book on writing, I tend to ignore the stuff about passives and so on. A darn good passive in the right place is an apt thing. A split infinitive handled well is beautiful. And as for dislodging adjectives and adverbs, it seems plain that Strunk and White must either have used a simplified version of English in their everyday speech, or else wrote the book as something of a hoax!

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