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GD Marks
07-03-2009, 04:04 PM
Evening all,

Being a Brit, I was largely unaware of Strunk & White until I spent significant time in the US. And since I've been reading and browsing this site over the last month or two I've seen it mentioned and recommended. I even spotted it in a very recent thread of recommended books for beginners. I searched for it too in the FAQs.

Here's the cruz of this post: during some 'clarification' searches on the use of 'passive voice', I stumbled across a very interesting article.

http://chronicle.com/free/v55/i32/32b01501.htm

It's recent.

If you don't want to look at the whole thing, what do you all think of this extract?

"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"

and this sums it up:
"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."

I find the whole article fascinating, how about you?

gdm.

Ken
07-03-2009, 04:22 PM
... just goes to show that you can't take anyone's word as gospel, even an expert's. Still found the book to be incredibly helpful and recommend it, highly. Most important thing I got out of it was to be concise and to trim away all excess.

stephenf
07-03-2009, 04:39 PM
I think Ken is right. Have a look at http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/ .If you drop down on the word&sentence level ,to passive /active you will find a more balanced advice.

Julie Worth
07-03-2009, 04:39 PM
"There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground" has no sign of the passive in it anywhere.

"There was" and "it was" constructions are considered passive (passive expletive), and I know for a fact that this is the pet peeve of one big time editor.

RJK
07-03-2009, 04:54 PM
The problem is, more than half the "Experts" think they understand the Active/Passive rules, and they don't. I had an English teacher friend, who submitted a short story for a contest and received a low score from one judge because every "was" was marked as passive. Of course they weren't but there was no way to convince the "Expert" judge.

dawinsor
07-03-2009, 05:00 PM
My blood pressure just shot up, and I need to rant. Humor me by allowing me to differentiate between passive voice, emphasis on action, and the delights of characters who shape situations rather than just respond to them.

Passive voice


The terms "active voice" and "passive voice" apply only to transitive verbs, i.e. verbs that pass action from an actor to a receiver. In an active voice sentence, the subject of the sentence is the actor. For example, in "John hit the ball," "John" is both the subject of the sentence and the one who's doing the hitting. In a passive voice sentence, the subject of the sentence is the receiver of the action. For example, in "The ball was hit by John," "ball" is the subject and is being hit. Passive voice is useful if you want to hide the doer because you can omit the "by" phrase (The ball was hit) or if it makes sense to emphasize the receiver of the action (Ross Hall was built...), but passive voice sentences are slightly but measurably slower to read and harder to comprehend.

The verb "to be" is not a transitive verb because it doesn't transmit action, so by itself, it's neither active nor passive. You see it as an auxiliary to "hit" to form the passive voice in "The ball was hit by John," but as I say, by itself, no form of "to be" is active or passive. So you can't rule out using it by calling it "passive voice."

Emphasis on Action


Instead, "to be" conveys a state of being. "He is tall." "The room was dark." Overuse of "to be" creates a problem not because it's passive voice but because there's no action, not even action passively expressed. The story isn't moving along. The situation is static. That's why advice about writing description often says to do it in action (Not "the room was dark" but "he put out his hands to keep from tripping in the coal dark room") or at least with livelier verb ("Dark lay thick across the doorway").

I'm not good with description in general, so you have my permission to laugh at those examples, but you get the idea.

Active vs passive characters


Another sort of "passive" has to do with passive characters. Once again, this has nothing to do with passive voice. Rather, it refers to characters, especially MCs, who react to events rather than shaping them. By and large, we cheer for active characters more than passive ones, who tend to be seen as victims. We admire characters who persist and get up to try again after they're knocked down. We like them to have a goal they're struggling to reach, so we can hope along with them.

Mind you, as with everything else, that's not absolute. You can undoubtedly think of passive characters whose story you enjoyed. But usually, we like active characters.

So that's my rant. Those are three different things that get lumped together when well-meaning but wrong advisers tell someone to avoid the verb "to be" at all costs.

Thank you. I feel better now.

john barnes on toast
07-03-2009, 05:23 PM
Another sort of "passive" has to do with passive characters. Once again, this has nothing to do with passive voice.

agree with all your post, but I especially wanted to highlight this as it seems to be a commonly held misconception.

justwondering
07-03-2009, 06:04 PM
Not having a background in the academic study of English grammar I won't comment on the definitions of the active/passive construction, but it clear that this article is written by someone with a gaping chip on his shoulder.

For instance, this is the author's first complaint:


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.)

The point is that many novice writers are not aware that they are explaining too much. The purpose of the advice is to encourage students to look back over what they have written and think, "Did I really need to explain at such length? Can I tighten this up?"

Perhaps no one is buying the author's book on grammar.

BenPanced
07-03-2009, 06:15 PM
I think we'd discussed this article in an earlier post (can't remember where it is, though). To me, it came across as a commercial for the author's own style guide.

Medievalist
07-03-2009, 08:39 PM
Geoff Pullam, the author of the article, is a linguist and a good one. He's also a good writer.

He does not now and never has taught writing.

Strunk and White was written out of sheer desperation when Strunk needed a very basic primer on writing for his freshmen comp classes at Cornell.

Strunk and White to this day is intended as a text for freshmen comp classes.

It works quite well for that audience--and yes, it's a good basic guide for the beginning non-fiction prose writer, with some decent advice for any writer.

But that's all it is.

Apsu
07-03-2009, 09:44 PM
A lot.

Just wanted to say thanks. Awesome post that really got through to me and some mistakes I make.




Thank you. I feel better now.

Me too.

Medievalist
07-03-2009, 10:24 PM
Not having a background in the academic study of English grammar I won't comment on the definitions of the active/passive construction, but it clear that this article is written by someone with a gaping chip on his shoulder.

Actually, no, not so much. It's written by a linguist--which makes a difference in terms of governing assumptions about language and writing and what's important.

Strunk and White's initial emphasis was teaching how to write one particular thing--five page freshmen comp essays.

Comparing Pullam to Strunk and White is sort of like comparing the perspectives of engineers and artists regarding the Parthenon.

James D. Macdonald
07-03-2009, 10:33 PM
Follow Strunk&White's rules, don't follow them, it's all the same to me. But you must know what they say, and you must know why you are following them, or why you aren't.

C.bronco
07-03-2009, 11:15 PM
"There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground" has no sign of the passive in it anywhere."There was" and "it was" constructions are considered passive (passive expletive), and I know for a fact that this is the pet peeve of one big time editor.
One of my high school teachers would not let us begin sentences with "there are (were, is)." I think the idea was to break us of our bad habit more than to insist we never use it again.

dpaterso
07-03-2009, 11:18 PM
I think we'd discussed this article in an earlier post (can't remember where it is, though). To me, it came across as a commercial for the author's own style guide.
Don't trust Strunk and White (http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=138304) in Grammar and Syntax (http://absolutewrite.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?f=111) forum (where else?).

-Derek

bagels
07-03-2009, 11:25 PM
One of my high school teachers would not let us begin sentences with "there are (were, is)." I think the idea was to break us of our bad habit more than to insist we never use it again.

I also had a teacher like that! It's an incredibly hard habit to break given how our modern society uses English.

Delhomeboy
07-03-2009, 11:46 PM
Although I think passive voice should be used to a minimum, I've never seen the big deal with there is/was.

GD Marks
07-04-2009, 03:37 AM
but it clear that this article is written by someone with a gaping chip on his shoulder.



This was absolutely my first impression, and I thought it was going to be a big rant against S&W. What got me interested was the quotations he used that broke their own rules.

gdm.

GD Marks
07-04-2009, 03:40 AM
Don't trust Strunk and White (http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=138304) in Grammar and Syntax (http://absolutewrite.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?f=111) forum (where else?).

-Derek


I suck! I actually searched for S&W before posting this!

Sorry for duplication.

gdm.

GD Marks
07-04-2009, 03:46 AM
But you must know what they say, and you must know why you are following them, or why you aren't.

As usual, spot on. What a good way to look at it.

thanks,
gdm.

James D. Macdonald
07-04-2009, 04:02 AM
One thing that drives me absolutely bonkers about Strunk & White is the way that the self-publishing enthusiasts wave it in the air as an example of a Successful Self-Published Book.

No, it wasn't.

Yes, William Strunk privately printed the first edition. That was because back in 1918 the photocopier had not yet been invented. He was passing out copies of his class notes to save the students having to copy them down by hand as he lectured. It was well under fifty pages.

Many years passed. Strunk died. A dozen years later one of his former students, E. B. White, took a copy of Strunk's class notes, edited, revised, and expanded them, and sold the resulting book to Macmillan. The Elements of Style by Strunk & White, the continuously in print, highly influential, best-selling volume, is not and never had been self-published.

Here's the full text of the original, now long-since passed into the public domain: http://www.crockford.com/wrrrld/style.html

Salis
07-04-2009, 04:32 AM
"There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground" has no sign of the passive in it anywhere."There was" and "it was" constructions are considered passive (passive expletive), and I know for a fact that this is the pet peeve of one big time editor.

Big-time really doesn't mean anything. There are plenty of people in positions of power who are very well respected who aren't necessarily competent or right (hi current financial crisis).

Just had to throw that out there. :D

James D. Macdonald
07-04-2009, 04:44 AM
There was/there were as a sentence opener isn't necessarily passive, but it is a weak construction.

You may need to use a weak construction for any number of reasons in your writing. For example, to change the pace of a passage; not everything needs to be at a breathless pace and 120 decibels. You can also use the form to conceal information from the reader. For example, in a mystery in which the candlestick is the murder weapon, I might write, There was a candlestick on the table.

The 'dead leaves' example from Strunk:


The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative principally concerned with action, but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.

There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.


Dead leaves covered the ground.

The sound of the falls could still be heard.


The sound of the falls still reached our ears.

The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired.


Failing health compelled him to leave college.

It was not long before he was very sorry that he had said what he had.


He soon repented his words.

Strunk isn't saying that the forms he's disparaging are passive. He's saying that they're "tame" and "perfunctory."

I'd also like to note that the sentences he's using as bad examples are wordy and clumsy. But not necessarily passive.

GD Marks
07-04-2009, 05:01 AM
I'd also like to note that the sentences he's using as bad examples are wordy and clumsy. But not necessarily passive.

This was a big point of the article, at least as I understood it.

That the examples were cherry-picked to make a point - the 'the bills were paid by me' is rightfully criticised as awkward, yet 'the bills were paid by an anonymous benefactor' is the same construction, but the second works fine while the first doesn't.

I know they could be changed to read: 'I paid the bills' or 'An anonymous benefactor paid the bills', but you bring the important part to the front of the sentence - 'the bills' or 'the payer', depending on what you want to emphasise?

Whereas adverbs were mentioned to be used as an emphasis at the end of a sentence? So, to alter the emphasis, 'I completely paid the bills' could be changed to 'I paid the bills completely', and the emphasis depends on what you want to say?

I took the main point of the article to be a lot of what S&W criticise are simply bad-examples of writing, instead of bad construction?

And, of course, and most damaging (imo), that they break their own rules regularly.

gdm.

James D. Macdonald
07-04-2009, 05:08 AM
As far as "breaking their own rules":


It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.

Ken
07-04-2009, 05:15 AM
... taking up the point that JDM raised about there being a place for the passive voice in fiction:

"There was a time when that would've moved me."
'Feel' of passivity, desired as the speaker is in a passive frame of mind or not enthused about the subject under discussion. To bar the passive voice from all fiction would be to bar characters in novels from ever being bored, disenfranchised, estranged, or alienated. So there's obviously a place for the passive voice, and S&W didn't deny this as JDM says. // Think Medi has a point about Elements being intended as a guide for non-fict essays, though much is applicable to fiction, with notable exceptions.

Shweta
07-04-2009, 05:20 AM
Another sort of "passive" has to do with passive characters. Once again, this has nothing to do with passive voice.

Again, I'm going ot disagree with this.
They are absolutely not the same thing, sure. But that doesn't mean there is no connection.

Active voice means the sentence includes:
[AGENT] [ACTION] [PATIENT]

James killed the king.

Passive voice goes:
[PATIENT] [ACTION] (Optional AGENT)

The king was killed (by James).

The semantic patient is almost never the one doing things; they're the one having things done to them (and, if they're animate, experiencing that).

Now, readers care about people who experience things as well as people who do things, and ideally our protagonists do both. So I absolutely agree that passives are useful constructions (especially when they properly maintain or direct focus).

And it seems to me pretty obvious that these are both perfectly good sentences. But -- they best answer different questions.

1) What did James do?
2) What happened to the king?

So they are focusing on the event in somewhat different ways.

It's useful to have tools with this sort of versatility. And I think it's counterproductive to say that the versatility of these constructions has nothing to do with who's the active character here and who's the victim.


This was absolutely my first impression, and I thought it was going to be a big rant against S&W. What got me interested was the quotations he used that broke their own rules.

gdm.

Maybe Pullum's examples aren't the best, but S&W break their own rules all over the place. The first lesson to learn from S&W, IMO, is what their rules say and mean, and why. The second lesson is where they break 'em and what nuance we can learn about the rules from that. The third is where we break 'em ourselves, and why, and what we communicate by doing so.

Shweta
07-04-2009, 05:22 AM
And, since this isn't quite a grammar issue but isn't a novels one either, I'm moving it to the Critical theory, etc. forum.

James D. Macdonald
07-04-2009, 05:34 AM
This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary. -- Wm. Strunk, The Elements of Style, Chapter III


Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. -- George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language."

You can have a passive character in a work that is written entirely in the active voice, e.g. Walter Mitty. (Thurber published "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" in The New Yorker where E. B. White was an editor.)

Ken
07-04-2009, 05:45 AM
... on my way to see how Thurber pulled that off ;-)

Shweta
07-04-2009, 05:54 AM
You can have a passive character in a work that is written entirely in the active voice, e.g. Walter Mitty. (Thurber published "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" in The New Yorker where E. B. White was an editor.)
Yeah, I've managed that myself, though by accident :D
It's a lot easier than the other way around.

Ken
07-04-2009, 06:06 AM
... could see how that might be managed if the character was being omnisciently portrayed, Shweta, but not in the first person. (It may just be that I'm thinking of passive as being something other than it usually encompasses.) If a person is in a passive frame of mind they're apt to speak and think passively and use rather dull language with roundabout constructions; e.g. The king was killed.

Shweta
07-04-2009, 06:14 AM
... could see how that might be managed if the character was being omnisciently portrayed, Shweta, but not in the first person. (It may just be that I'm thinking of passive as being something other than it usually encompasses.) If a person is in a passive frame of mind they're apt to speak and think passively and use rather dull language with roundabout constructions; e.g. The king was killed.

Neither of these constructions is roundabout, though.
And "speaking and thinking passively" has more to do with the verbs you choose than whether you use active or passive constructions.

But yeah, I don't really see anyone saying "The king was killed by me", so it'd be different in 1stp :)

Ken
07-04-2009, 06:21 AM
And "speaking and thinking passively" has more to do with the verbs you choose than whether you use active or passive constructions.

... that's definitely another way to convey passivity and probably a prefered one that won't be apt to put readers and editors to sleep ;-)

Dawnstorm
07-04-2009, 06:41 AM
Maybe Pullum's examples aren't the best, but S&W break their own rules all over the place. The first lesson to learn from S&W, IMO, is what their rules say and mean, and why. The second lesson is where they break 'em and what nuance we can learn about the rules from that. The third is where we break 'em ourselves, and why, and what we communicate by doing so.

What Mr. Pullum says (and I've been following his language log posts for a couple of years now) is that the booklet doesn't tell you what the rules mean. They just state them categorically and then leave the student to figure out what they mean on a couple of skewed and complex examples (e.g. choice of voice is not sufficient to explain why the cited examples are better). What this means, in the end, is:

If you understand these rules, they disappear; you don't need them. If you need them, you'll want help with understanding what they mean, but you won't get that from the booklet.

The thing is this: if good writers routinely break these rules (White says "sometimes", but if we're talking about the rules in "Strunk & White" routinely is more accurate, IMO), where do I find good texts that don't? Or: how did they arrive at these rules in the first place? Where's the evidence that these are rules at all?

I agree with the drive of Pullum's article, but there are parts of the article I disagree with (the one about "ignorance what passive voice is", for example.) I'll be back with more time and capacity later.

Shweta
07-04-2009, 06:54 AM
What Mr. Pullum says (and I've been following his language log posts for a couple of years now) is that the booklet doesn't tell you what the rules mean. They just state them categorically and then leave the student to figure out what they mean on a couple of skewed and complex examples (e.g. choice of voice is not sufficient to explain why the cited examples are better). What this means, in the end, is:

If you understand these rules, they disappear; you don't need them. If you need them, you'll want help with understanding what they mean, but you won't get that from the booklet.

I do agree with him on that.
But I think that's true of most writing rules. It's not like "Show don't tell" is useful to anyone without a sense of which is which. They're only useful as ways of making us more aware of tendencies, not as "Rules".

I think this comes back to the book being intended as a classroom text that went along with a lecture.

GD Marks
07-04-2009, 06:55 AM
If you understand these rules, they disappear; you don't need them. If you need them, you'll want help with understanding what they mean, but you won't get that from the booklet.

I agree with this bit ^^^, admittedly from the brief browse I've had of it, but I have had many "S&W say this, and S&W say that" conversations with people that see it as a grammar bible.

there are parts of the article I disagree with (the one about "ignorance what passive voice is", for example.)

And, Dawnstorm, I look forward to see why you disagree with this bit ^^^


Shweta - sorry for posting in the novels forum - I thought about putting it in the grammar forum, but I thought I'd seen some other random postings in the novels subsection so thought it was no big deal, and I wanted to see a large number of reactions by novelists. I mean, it think it was recommended to newbies in there just last week?

I was afraid that out here in purgatory it may just run dead, and I wanted to gauge reactions to the article.. S&W came up a lot in Novels, but I do know it is a grammar discussion.

I meant it to be a discussion betweeen people who write novels, about the article, not necessarily the rules themselves.. But never mind!

Thanks for all the replies so far!
gdm.

Dawnstorm
07-04-2009, 11:37 AM
I think this comes back to the book being intended as a classroom text that went along with a lecture.

Agreed. Maybe the 51st editon will come with an AI replica of Oliver Strunk? (And perhaps E.B. White? I wonder at what age they should replicate him? And should they be allowed to interact?)

The problem isn't the text itself (even Pullum once called it "mostly harmless"; can't track down the link right now, as languagelog seems to be down temporarily); it's the authority afforded it. I've often heard things like "Every professional writer should have read that," or worse, "every serious writer should own it." I can't tell you how annyoing this is to someone whose opinion of this booklet is, shall we say, not favourable. (I like understatement. I suppose, Strunk would disapprove of my lack of vigo(u)r?)

***


And, Dawnstorm, I look forward to see why you disagree with this bit ^^^

Okay, here goes.

As a starting point, let me quote Dawinsor's post:


The terms "active voice" and "passive voice" apply only to transitive verbs, i.e. verbs that pass action from an actor to a receiver.

I agree with this. Mostly. There are such things as intransitive verbs in the passive voice - google the terms "prepositional passives"/"pseudopassives" if you're interested. However, this has no impact on the part about "to be", which I agree with unreservedly.

Pullum, I think, doesn't agree. If I had the resources, I'd check the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (http://www.cambridge.org/uk/linguistics/cgel/), which is the grammar he co-authored. I'm going by a quote on language log, which I can't currently access, which basically said that "active voice" means no more than "not passive voice", which implies that any verb not in the passive voice is in the active voice, which then implies that such a construction as "It was not long before..." is actually in the active voice.

Personally, I think it makes no sense to talk about active voice for verbs that have - in principle - no way to be turned into the passive voice. In English, these are linking verbs. (I hesitate about intransitives, because of "prepositional passives" [see comment above].)

Now, if you assume that "active voice" is synonymous with "not passive voice", then "Use the active voice" is the equivalent to "don't use the passive voice".

But if you're going with my and dawinsor's definition of "active voice", "Use the active voice" is not synonymous with "Don't use the passive voice," but with... well, with what? "Don't use the passive voice + Don't use linking verbs?"

Which means that "It was not long before he was very sorry that he had said what he had," does indeed not rely on active voice (the only active verb being "said" and occuring in a subordinate clause). It's just that instead of:


Transitive (passive voice) --> Transitive (active voice)

you get


Linking verb (--) --> Transitive (active voice)

Pullum would, I suppose, recast the latter as:


Linking verb (active voice) --> Transitive (active voice)

Which would render the rule as "Use transitivity," rather than "use the active voice".

Note that "Use the active voice," then doesn't become a prohibitve "rule", but a problem-fixing technique: If you have a "weak construction" you don't like, and you want to get rid of it, look for a "transtive verb" and use it in the "active voice".

Note, though, that viewed like that "Use the active voice" is a fixing technique, not a diagnostic tool. You're not supposed to go through your work on a search and destroy mission, eliminating passives left and right. You're supposed to track down patches of text that don't work, and if you find that the verb's too "weak", a "transitive verb in the active voice" can often help you recast the sentence.

This is not a bad technique.

On forums, though, you find the rule transmuted to "don't use the passive voice." A diagnostic tool.

Say, your reader sense tells you:

Alert: Weak construction.

Then you start the diagnosis:

Step 1:

Passive voice?

No --> Step 2:

Linking verb

Yes --> Rule 14 "Use the active voice"

What's the problem with this? Taken as a diagnostic tool, "passive voice" and "linking verbs" are identified as the problem rather than as the symptom. As a result, you default to the "active voice substitution fix", and ignore a wealth of other fixes."

Okay, let's play this through:

There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.

Alert! Weak sentence!

Diagnosis:

Passive voice?

"were" - no. "lying" no.

Linking verb.

"were" - yes. --> Fix:

Lexical search: related concepts: lying (leaves, great number of; on the ground). Restriction: transitive verb. --> "to cover" (hurray!)

-->

A great number of dead leaves covered the ground.

Alert! Awkward Sentence.

....

Redundancy? "great number of <--> covered"

-->

Dead leaves covered the ground.

Done. Nice edit.

Why is this problematic?

Well, for starters, you're missing the fact that "were" does not have to be analysed as a linking verb.

Detour:

"There was..." comes in (at least) two flavours:

Existential there: "There is a cat on the roof." The "there" has no explicit reference. It just points towards a general sense of existance. Note that that - in English - "there is" is the default way of expressing that sort of thing: "There's a hair in my soup." "There are no kangaroos in Austria (except in zoos)."...

Demonstrative there: Here "there" doesn't express a vague sense of existance, but rather a speaker-related direction: "Look! There's Jim!" This "there" works with some verbs of movment ("There goes Jim!") as well as with some verbs expressing location...

...such as "to lie".

Take this variant:

"There lay on the ground a great number of dead leaves." (progressive aspect --> simple aspect)

Or this variant:

"There were a great number of dead leaves covering the ground." (to lie --> to cover)

Why don't I like the rule "Use the active voice?" It creates a prejudice against the passive voice, which in turn dulls a readers language awareness by giving a single element undue prominence. I suspect that many writers were better editors before they encountered that odious booklet.

Is this Strunk's fault? No. He didn't write a style guide; he wrote a teaching aid. It's the fault of the publishing desaster that is "Elements of Style". Decontextualised and misunderstood.

Is Strunk ignorant of what the passive voice is? No. He identifies "some such perfunctory construction" as the problem and "a transitive in the active voice" as a fix. Viewed methodologically rather than diagnostically, this makes perfect sense under the view I outlined above. Also, the other sections on this rule (1918 version; Strunk solo (http://www.bartleby.com/141/strunk5.html#11)) such as the bit about when to use active or passive, or the bit about double passives (eliminated from later editions, I think), indicate that he does know what he's talking about.

So what am I accusing Strunk of? Unstructured thought. This is forgivable in a teaching aid, but a cardinal sin in and advice booklet. For "Elements of Style", he'd have to define his terms - eliminating uncertainties. He'd have to think it through better. He'd have to be more comprehensive.

For example, I wonder what Strunk thinks of "intransitives (in the active voice?)"

Is this even important? Well, I think it is. Here's why:

For reasons I can't fathom, the sentence-pair "The sound of the falls could still be heard,"/"The sound of the falls still reached our ears." is no longer in later editions. Instead we get: "At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard."/"The cock's crow came with dawn."

I wonder if you notice my problem? While Strunk exchanges "could be heard" for "reached our ears" (a "transitive in the active voice", like he says), White (if he's responsible for the change) exchanges "could be heard" with an "intransitive (in the active voice?)".

This is a serious inconsistency that should never have passed the proofreaders. But, more importantly, this shows that White himself didn't get what Strunk was saying. Or maybe he did, but then I'm left to wonder why Strunk went to the trouble and used the word "transitive" rather than simply "verb". To me, "transitive" stands out in Elements, as Strunk tends to use simpler words (such as "verbs") elsewhere. He must have considered this significant.

But why? Would Strunk agree with "could be heard" --> "came with"? I can't tell from the text. He's notoriously quiet about intransitive verbs. I have no idea how they fit into the picture (according to Strunk).

Can we, then, blame White for making that mistake? Again, I don't assume that White is ignorant about transitivity. He could have been just careless.

So what I think we have in Strunk&White is a half-baked rule, carelessly edited in a way that introduces an inconsistency that points towards weak points in the original concept. Add millions of superficial readings...

So, yes, I'm with Pullum: don't rely on this book. In fact, if you ever get the chance to ignore it, do so. But I still disagree with him on the topic of Strunk's ignorance. Strunk may not have made his point well, or he may not have thought it through all the way. But I do think he knows how to tell active from passive verbs.

James D. Macdonald
07-04-2009, 03:06 PM
Here's why Strunk & White are useful to writers, and why Pullum isn't: It isn't important that a writer know the technical definitions of "active" and "passive" and correctly apply them in all cases. What is important is that the writer be able to recognize awkwardness, and if something is awkward fool with it until it is less so.

I can do a shorter Strunk & White in five words: Write with passion, yet gracefully.

Shweta
07-04-2009, 04:12 PM
I can do a shorter Strunk & White in five words: Write with passion, yet gracefully.

And you're right, of course, but that's useful to exactly nobody who doesn't already have some sense of what passion and grace are.

The reason Pullum (and linguistics in general) can be useful to a writer is that it gives us mental tools to look at exactly what the issues are. And explain 'em to the people who don't already have a feel for them. (This isn't disagreement, exactly, just an objection to the level of generality of your comment.)

When I'm writing, I just write, but being a linguist has made me a far better editor.

Dawnstorm
07-04-2009, 08:27 PM
Here's why Strunk & White are useful to writers, and why Pullum isn't: It isn't important that a writer know the technical definitions of "active" and "passive" and correctly apply them in all cases. What is important is that the writer be able to recognize awkwardness, and if something is awkward fool with it until it is less so.

But the connection between advice literature and technical terminology wasn't established by Pullum. Strunk/White used the term "active voice" and "transitives". Are you saying that a reader doesn't need to know what they mean when they say this? That they have no responsibility for the words they use?

What I hate about Elements is that the rhetorics make the things he says sound immediately plausible, so when the inconsistencies surface later the writers blame themselves for not understanding properly. Going back and re-reading won't solve these problems. The problems are in the text.

Why is Pullum's article valuable? An expert on language debunks a valued tome. What this means is that your own uninformed suspicions gain some sort of validity. You suddenly realise you're not a moron for finding the book trite. It's liberating.

***

Btw, if people are interested, here's a book proposal (http://www.stanford.edu/~zwicky/proposal.pdf) by Arnold Zwicky, a linguist who specialises, among other things, in advice literature. (And here's (http://www.stanford.edu/~zwicky/051102.SHC.pdf) something more detailed, but also less coherent and complete; a sort of working draft of an excerpt - if you will.)

I particularly wish to draw attention to point 8. (first link): "The linguistic perils of instruction: hypersensitivity, avoidance, contamination, hypercorrection, reversal." My online experience (since about 2003 for writing) has left me especially worried about hypersensitivity and avoidance:


The first is that explicit instruction can make people hypersensitive to some element. If you’ve been taught the PAP, you probably can’t get out from under it. When I present the sentence Mary’s father admires her to speakers of English, most of them have no clue what the issue is. But some instantly judge it as “bad” – and these are always people who’ve been explicitly taught some version of the PAP. They’ve been ruined as judges of their native language, at least in this respect.

The hypersensitivity effect is very strong. People who’ve been taught the DMP, NSP, NSI, and similar proscriptions can’t not notice an occurrence of one of these structures. It grates on them. [boldprint = italics in original; changed because quoteboxes default to italics]

Avoidance is more straightforward: instead of overuse you get underuse. Better? *Shrug*

***

So, yes, I agree: There's no need to identify grammatical concepts by name for writers. But:

- If you do use those terms you have a responsibility to use them correctly (and I said, I think Pullum's wrong, and Strunk did use it correctly).

- If you read texts that contain these terms figure out what they mean (which is tricky - as I think I may have shown above).

And - most importantly - don't spread prejudice. This is my main beef with Strunk and White.

Blue Sky
07-04-2009, 08:50 PM
Dawnstorm: Thanks for your analysis. I own a copy of S&W and have read it. However, over the years I've found myself going to other references. This ref felt in ways a bit off and incomplete, so I trusted my feeling and kept going. Linguistic nuances thrill me, however, my focus while writing is cat waxing. Um, I mean writing.

In the example you quote I too see a huge difference. Thanks again. That took a minute or two to write.

Dawnstorm
07-04-2009, 09:02 PM
Linguistic nuances thrill me, however, my focus while writing is cat waxing. Um, I mean writing.

Cat waxing is both brave and depraved. It has that in common with writing.

I'm not sure how many writers out there worry about whether the word they've just put down is a preposition or an adverb. I certainly don't.

Unless when I write about a linguist, maybe?

Mad Queen
07-04-2009, 09:57 PM
Have any of you read Style: Towards Clarity and Grace? I think Pullum recommends it, I can't remember. Although I'm still on chapter 3, it seems a lot more useful than Elements of Style.

Medievalist
07-04-2009, 10:07 PM
Here's why Strunk & White are useful to writers, and why Pullum isn't: It isn't important that a writer know the technical definitions of "active" and "passive" and correctly apply them in all cases. What is important is that the writer be able to recognize awkwardness, and if something is awkward fool with it until it is less so.

I can do a shorter Strunk & White in five words: Write with passion, yet gracefully.



This is the thing to take away with you.

Ken Schneider
07-04-2009, 10:08 PM
I prefer:

A gaggle of multicolored leaves littered the ground.

In other news.

Practice makes perfect.

Medievalist
07-04-2009, 10:15 PM
But the connection between advice literature and technical terminology wasn't established by Pullum. Strunk/White used the term "active voice" and "transitives". Are you saying that a reader doesn't need to know what they mean when they say this? That they have no responsibility for the words they use?

Who is "they" in this sentence?


What I hate about Elements is that the rhetorics make the things he says sound immediately plausible, so when the inconsistencies surface later the writers blame themselves for not understanding properly. Going back and re-reading won't solve these problems. The problems are in the text.

Writers who are writing for an audience other than the humanities classroom and who rely on Strunk and White as the source of all knowledge are somewhat naive.

<snip>

So, yes, I agree: There's no need to identify grammatical concepts by name for writers. But:

- If you do use those terms you have a responsibility to use them correctly (and I said, I think Pullum's wrong, and Strunk did use it correctly).

- If you read texts that contain these terms figure out what they mean (which is tricky - as I think I may have shown above).

Oh please, you get five native speakers of English trained as linguists with at least ten years difference in the eras in which they earned their doctorates, you'll have at least three labeling systems, and 7 different interpretations of just about any statement.

Medievalist
07-04-2009, 10:16 PM
Have any of you read Style: Towards Clarity and Grace? I think Pullum recommends it, I can't remember. Although I'm still on chapter 3, it seems a lot more useful than Elements of Style.

Yes. I've used it to teach with; it's not bad. I am, however, a Lanhamite.

James D. Macdonald
07-04-2009, 11:55 PM
Are you saying that a reader doesn't need to know what they mean when they say this?

Yeah, pretty much. They (S&W) could have said "cart" and "horse." If it pleases you, substitute the word "cart" wherever you see "passive" and "horse" wherever you see "active" and all will be well.


That they have no responsibility for the words they use?

This sentence has no relationship with the preceding one.

Remember that Strunk's booklet was the cri de coeur of a freshman comp instructor who spent his career facing stacks of essays written by students who had never read Hemingway. Forty years later, one of his students wrote an essay (published in a leading literary magazine) about the old professor who had argued for clear writing.

Pullum seems to be arguing for correctness of terminology. Good for him. I'll continue to recommend Strunk & White to newbies who have never run into the concept of style at all. It's short.

(I must confess here that I have no idea what PAP, DMP, NSP, and NSI refer to. I'm probably the happier for it.)

James D. Macdonald
07-05-2009, 12:21 AM
(I must confess here that I have no idea what PAP, DMP, NSP, and NSI refer to. I'm probably the happier for it.)


Now, having read the links to Zwicky (http://www.stanford.edu/%7Ezwicky/proposal.pdf) that you supplied, I know what those acronyms mean, but will undoubtedly soon forget.

One thing did strike me:


Writers should be getting advice about how entities are introduced into a discourse, foregrounded, backgrounded, refreshed, and so on, instead of being given simple proscriptions that can be mechanically applied.

No, writers shouldn't be getting that advice. Grammarians, perhaps. Linguists, perhaps. Writers? Nope.

For the rest, it's well to remember that language is not mathematics nor is English Latin.

justwondering
07-05-2009, 12:29 AM
Given the pedantic nature of the article (see my previous post; post 8) it amuses me that the author has misused the term 'tautologous'.

The advice "Do not explain too much" may be described as redundant or self-evident but it is not tautologous.

Not being American I have never read Strunk and White but it is apparent from quotes in this thread* that, unlike the pompous ass who wrote the linked article, they at least do understand that the rules of written English are not rigid and inflexible (<-yes I know).

*For example

It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.

Dawnstorm
07-05-2009, 12:51 AM
Who is "they" in this sentence?

A complex agglomarate of Strunk, White and publishers.

Strunk is responsible to his students, whom he's written this for. That is: if he uses "active voice" and "passive voice" in the text, it's his responsibility to make sure his students know what he means. He can do that in class. It's a teaching aid after all. (I have no idea how he fared, but I suppose he did well.)

White, whose treatment of the original is what's available to the wider public, is responsible to the wider public, and by extension for the effect the text has on non-student readers. (As far as I know, Strunk and White [as opposed to the original] contains a glossary, which is definitely a step in the right direction.)

Nobody is in anyway responsible for non-systematic misreadings by individual readers.

The people who approached White and suggested the booklet are responsible to check whether its appropriate for the audience they'll market it to. (Practically, they may be responsible to their accountants, but that's not what I mean.) So they share part of White's responsibility in preparing the book for publication.

It's a bit of a mess, trying to assign responsibility.


Writers who are writing for an audience other than the humanities classroom and who rely on Strunk and White as the source of all knowledge are somewhat naive.

Yup.


Oh please, you get five native speakers of English trained as linguists with at least ten years difference in the eras in which they earned their doctorates, you'll have at least three labeling systems, and 7 different interpretations of just about any statement.

I know. I really shouldn't have said "correctly", should I? I mean, I've tried to explain above why I think that Strunk's not ignorant about the passive voice, despite what Pullum says, and my line of argument is "theoretical differences/terminological similarities".

Still, because that's the way it is, definitions are important. You should have them, and you should stick to them. All else hinders communication. (If you have troubles sticking to them, because the subject matter's more complex than the theory, be honest and say so.)


Yeah, pretty much. They (S&W) could have said "cart" and "horse." If it pleases you, substitute the word "cart" wherever you see "passive" and "horse" wherever you see "active" and all will be well.

I'd much prefer a horse/cart metaphor, as nobody's going to look for definitions elsewhere and be confused when they don't apply. Plus, you don't stigmatise existing grammatical structures.


Pullum seems to be arguing for correctness of terminology. Good for him. I'll continue to recommend Strunk & White to newbies who have never run into the concept of style at all. It's short.

I've heard linguists recommend it. Steven Pinker? When all's said and done, it's not that important. But it is a book that sends me into rants. I don't like it, and I will continue to recommend active avoidance until you're secure enough not to be phased by the authoritative tone. It's shortness is not a strength - it's a mercy.


(I must confess here that I have no idea what PAP, DMP, NSP, and NSI refer to. I'm probably the happier for it.)

My post originally would have included the recommendation to ignore the abbreviations, but I deleted the line before submitting. If you're really curious you can look them up in the link. They may not be sufficiently explained there, as the target audience (of the first link) is experts. No, they're not essential to know. They stand in for common boogaboos.

ETA: You're a quicker reader than I am a typer. ;)

Dawnstorm
07-05-2009, 12:58 AM
No, writers shouldn't be getting that advice. Grammarians, perhaps. Linguists, perhaps. Writers? Nope.

I'm beginning to think writers should be given a pen, not advice.

Medievalist
07-05-2009, 01:04 AM
I'm beginning to think writers should be given a pen, not advice.

Yep.

They'll have editors. If they can get their point across, and have a story, and incite narrative lust, the spelling and grammar are fixable--or revisable.

There's a tendency for many writers of fiction and poetry, in particular, to engage in a lot of talking about writing, rather than actually applying the seat of the pants to the chair, and writing.

kings_falcon
07-05-2009, 08:08 AM
Also keep in mind that the book is called Elements of Style. It's White's guidelines for some stylistic choices. To quote from Pirates of the Carribean "they're more like guidelines."

Just like any grammer guideline, slavish and blind obedience to the guidelines will create their own problems.

Is it still a must read? Yes.

But you must do what James says - know what the guidelines are, understand them, know when, why you are breaking them and be willing to pay the price for doing so.

GD Marks
07-05-2009, 08:28 AM
Also keep in mind that the book is called Elements of Style.


Oh, yes. Certainly. It's just that it is bandied around as much more than that. It is regarded as more than advice.

And I think Dawnstorm put it well earlier with something like 'it's the authority given to S&W' that is the 'problem'. (Problem used as a shorthand.)

gdm.

Shweta
07-05-2009, 10:49 AM
No, writers shouldn't be getting that advice. Grammarians, perhaps. Linguists, perhaps. Writers? Nope.

For the rest, it's well to remember that language is not mathematics nor is English Latin.

So what about the writers who find that really useful when we're editing? It's not just terminology, it's a set of critical tools for thinking about language; and most linguistics has very little to do with math or latin. Certainly concepts like foregrounding have plenty to do with writing and nothing to do with math; or at least, Le Guin thinks so and points 'em out in her consciousness-raising exercises for writers.

None of it is any use to the writer who's looking for a quick fix, but that doesn't make it useless.

And... linguists can't be writers?
Forget the ones here. Donna Jo Napoli's a highly respected linguist and an award-winning author. And her linguistic sensibility is clear in her books. It supports the story.

Oh and, one of the most successful buffy screenwriters apparently attributed their success to cognitive linguistics. I have that from George Lakoff, so it's short on details, but the screenwriter was one of his students.

:Shrug:
I dislike overgeneralizations, Jim, even from you.

Ruv Draba
07-05-2009, 03:25 PM
I think I've followed it all!

S&W is right for freshmen but wrong for writers except it's right for freshmen writers as long as it's not pushed by a pedant because it's panned by Pullum, (though Pullum is impertinent and Lisa loves Lanham) but mercifully at least it's not pedagogically prolix.

:hooray:

(Then again, what authority on style ends up being good for writers of any kind when its pushed by pedants?)

Shweta
07-06-2009, 04:51 AM
S&W is right for freshmen but wrong for writers except it's right for freshmen writers as long as it's not pushed by a pedant because it's panned by Pullum, (though Pullum is impertinent and Lisa loves Lanham) but mercifully at least it's not pedagogically prolix.
:ROFL:

GD Marks
07-06-2009, 05:01 AM
Seconded.

V. Greene
07-10-2009, 05:55 PM
I just found this forum -- yay!

From two pages ago:
Many are useless, like "Omit needless words." Somewhere or other (my ability to name sources, especially several years later, is dreadful) I picked up "Avoid superfluous prolixity." I've found that while I often write that in response to someone else's fiction, I rarely have to do so twice to the same writer. Though this could bring on the complaint that I'm not following the rules I'm endorsing, self-illustrating sentences can be marvelous tools. Mostly, that one seems to bring on a flinch and an, "Oh, is that what I just did? Sorry!"

I also read a paper for an intro-linguistics class some years ago on the use of passive voice in conversation, and how it was usually an attempt to dodge responsibility. The example was, "You know that thing of gravy you had in the refrigerator? It got dumped." The linguist observed that the signal word that kept this from being utterly abrupt was had. If your character is trying to slither out of something, a passive voice may be just the ticket. If your character is the sort to say, "I just dumped that little thing of gravy all over the inside of your fridge and made the most horrible mess. Where are the paper towels?" she's a remarkably responsible and forthright human being. I might never have noticed the difference, though, if the linguistics paper hadn't sent up the flag.

Is there such a thing as useless information for writers? To me, not studying grammar and language use and wanting to be a professional writer is a bit like trying to be a professional musician without learning your scales and arpeggios until they're innate. Unlike a good many style guides out there, S&W is at least readable foundation work, and it's rare to find a style guide co-written by someone who has also written a book on the level of The Once and Future King -- something students might actually have read and enjoyed. The ability to whallop out pedantic academic prose isn't a qualification for teaching graceful writing, though it can certainly make observations about it.

(This reminds me -- one of the better English teachers I've known likes to tell the story of reading Macbeth with a class of remedial-level high school students in a very rural area. When they were done, one young man in the back raised his hand and asked, "That ol' boy write anything else?" They did another half-dozen Shakespeare plays that year. Never underestimate the power of "And what else did he write?" I've found several previously-indifferent writers whose ears go all to points when I tell them that the second author is that same E. B. White.)

And now, having said that, I need to go read three or four more of the tantalizing links above. I'm willing to agree that S&W is not the be-all and end-all of good writing, but it makes an awfully nice first step on the long path, and it seems to be palatable for the fifteen-to-twentysomething set.

ETA: and Charlotte's Web. Gee, do I run in the fantasy circles?

ETA2:
"Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs," they insist. (The motivation of this mysterious decree remains unclear to me.) Perhaps a century ago this was different, but now this "mysterious decree" makes the difference between elegantly-written fiction and pulp fiction. If you are trying to write pulp, the surest way is to drop at least one -ly ending into each paragraph and use lots of lurid, eldritch adjectives. Pulp, you see, paid by the word count back in the day. I'm no fan of utterly banning entire parts of speech, and that shows in this post, but too many -ly's, especially in the hands of a writer ignoring sentence rhythm, start to make inadvertant and stilted rhyming poetry which gets on the readers' nerves.

Dawnstorm
07-11-2009, 12:01 PM
From two pages ago: Somewhere or other (my ability to name sources, especially several years later, is dreadful) I picked up "Avoid superfluous prolixity." I've found that while I often write that in response to someone else's fiction, I rarely have to do so twice to the same writer. Though this could bring on the complaint that I'm not following the rules I'm endorsing, self-illustrating sentences can be marvelous tools. Mostly, that one seems to bring on a flinch and an, "Oh, is that what I just did? Sorry!"

Well, this shows exactly why I don't like EoS. See, to me "Avoid Superfluous Prolixity" is not self-illustrating; or if it is, it's not equivalent to "omit needless words." There are no needless words in "Avoid superfluous prolixity". All three words perform as they should.

The common "rule" you're demonstrating is KISS ("Keep it simple, stupid"); I'm not sure if it's in EoS at all. It might be, or it could be constructed from various of their rules. Who knows?

The rules are concise, but they're not clear. Why did you respond to "Omit needless words," with "Avoid Superfluous Prolixity," in the first place?


I also read a paper for an intro-linguistics class some years ago on the use of passive voice in conversation, and how it was usually an attempt to dodge responsibility. The example was, "You know that thing of gravy you had in the refrigerator? It got dumped." The linguist observed that the signal word that kept this from being utterly abrupt was had. If your character is trying to slither out of something, a passive voice may be just the ticket.

That is a very interesting example. Note the "got-passive". The "was-passive" wouldn't work nearly as well:

You know that thing of gravy you had in the refrigerator? It was dumped.
See how the "got", here carries a note of "accidently" that the "was" would lack?

A couple of notes:

1. I'd like to draw attention to "in conversation". Passive voice is much rarer in speech than in writing. (I've seen statistics on that somewhere, but I'm too lazy to go look for it now. I think I could be taking them from the Longman Grammar of Written and Spoken English (http://www.amazon.com/Hardcover-Longman-Grammar-Written-English/dp/0582237254), but I'm not sure. I don't own that book, so I can't check.

What this means is that passive voice usage might have different implications in writing and speaking. You'd certainly need to approach it differently.

2. I'm wary about the "usually".

Thanks for that example, though. It's great!


If your character is the sort to say, "I just dumped that little thing of gravy all over the inside of your fridge and made the most horrible mess. Where are the paper towels?" she's a remarkably responsible and forthright human being. I might never have noticed the difference, though, if the linguistics paper hadn't sent up the flag.

The signal value of "had" arises from tense, not voice. "...you had..." - "Wait, I don't have it anymore?" See:

You know that thing of gravy you had in the refrigerator? I accidently dumped it. Sorry. Where are the paper towels?
Introducing things you're going to talk about is generally not a bad idea. It's especially useful to do this, if what you're going to say about it is unpleasant. The effect of the passive voice ("got dumped") is negligible, really, in that context.

Or a bit more dodgy, but still in the active voice?

A: You know that thing of gravy you had in the refrigerator? Someone dumped it.

B: I wonder who.

C: Gravy-dumping refrigerator gnomes?

Is there such a thing as useless information for writers? To me, not studying grammar and language use and wanting to be a professional writer is a bit like trying to be a professional musician without learning your scales and arpeggios until they're innate.

A scale is a scale. An arpeggio is an arpeggio. You can practise these things. But neither Strunk nor White are precise enough to allow that sort of practise. You need to transform these general statements into practical exercises. Something to do, rather than something to pay lipservice to.

This is where Strunk & White provide little to no help. It's easier to do this if you are already a good writer, or if you're a new writer with too much confidence (these rules mean whatever you want them to; they're not specific enough to contradict you much). But a new writer with little confidence will have more problems with the booklet. And - here's why the book makes me angry - they might think there's something wrong them rather than with the booklet.


Unlike a good many style guides out there, S&W is at least readable foundation work, and it's rare to find a style guide...

It's readable. I'm not so sure about "foundation work". I have a hunch that the "foundation work" is what the reader has to bring to the text rather than take away from it. Again, good in the class room, out of place elsewhere.


...co-written by someone who has also written a book on the level of The Once and Future King -- something students might actually have read and enjoyed. The ability to whallop out pedantic academic prose isn't a qualification for teaching graceful writing, though it can certainly make observations about it.

Conversly, the ability to write well does not automatically confer the ability to write coherently about writing well. I read and enjoyed Charlotte's Web; that doesn't mean I buy White's articles in EoS. If you're going to argue authority, argue with Strunk. He was at least a teacher, meaning he should have had pedagoical skill. The trouble with that argument is that the orignal EoS (and the White-less version is, in my opinion, a better book) is not supposed to be a standalone.


ETA2: Perhaps a century ago this was different, but now this "mysterious decree" makes the difference between elegantly-written fiction and pulp fiction. If you are trying to write pulp, the surest way is to drop at least one -ly ending into each paragraph and use lots of lurid, eldritch adjectives. Pulp, you see, paid by the word count back in the day. I'm no fan of utterly banning entire parts of speech, and that shows in this post, but too many -ly's, especially in the hands of a writer ignoring sentence rhythm, start to make inadvertant and stilted rhyming poetry which gets on the readers' nerves.

Given that the only example given for this rule is supposed to demonstrate when adjectives are useful, I'm kind of stumped how to turn this into anything useful.

On the one hand, it's a no-brainer. Nouns and verbs are obligatory to sentence creation in English. Adverbs and adjectives are not. So, of course, it's easier to write well without adjectives and adverbs than without verbs or nouns.

The basic question, then, is: How do I tell when an adjective/adverb is "good"? I doubt you'll find much help in S&W.

People say Elements of Style is a slim book about style. I think it's a wordy table of contents to an unwritten book. I also think your ETA2 contains more insight than the entire Elements of Style.

Ruv Draba
07-14-2009, 03:31 AM
Unlike a good many style guides out there, S&W is at least readable foundation work, and it's rare to find a style guide co-written by someone who has also written a book on the level of The Once and Future King -- something students might actually have read and enjoyed.In fact it's so rare that it's never happened... The White of The Once and Future King is T.H. rather than E.B. :)

V. Greene
07-15-2009, 08:15 PM
In fact it's so rare that it's never happened... The White of The Once and Future King is T.H. rather than E.B. :)

*headdesk* Okay, okay, Charlotte's Web it is. Did I mention a source-attribution problem, or what? :flag: :Shrug:(That would be a simple blushing smiley if I could find one -- doesn't anyone ever get embarrassed around here?) On the bright side, I think more students have read about Wilbur than about Arthur.

And


Why did you respond to "Omit needless words," with "Avoid Superfluous Prolixity," in the first place?


You mean besides my fondness for tangents? There's more than one way to be needless. You can have needlessly many or needlessly large, but either way the words themselves weren't necessary. "Sesquipedalian" is for special occasions, for instance. Funny thing, though -- the same young writers who put way too many words into an essay, thinking the professor will grade by weight, will also put far too few into fiction thinking everyone else can see what they can. They seem to feel that the number of syllables will make up for the want of setting. The reader ends up with the feeling of floating in an empty space with an odd cast of verbose people. (Often as not, these verbose people are gifted with the ability to see their own facial expressions. What style manual can I recommend for POV problems?)

But that's getting far from S&W and well into pedagogical issues. I still think S&W has a place in the world for getting people to think about language use instead of assuming that because they've used words for years they're doing it well. Nipping back to the practice metaphor, sloppy practicing doesn't make a musician. Before they can form an opinion, even a weakly-informed one, they have to have something to form the opinion about. If they've never heard of passive voice before, at least the S&W illustrations give them the thought, "Well, who was doing what?" That's a useful question in all sorts of places where technical passive voice is not, such as those awful sentences where the leading clause aims somewhere other than the subject and makes an alert reader say something like, "Wait -- since when is the president a vacation home?"

I suppose, though, one could always have the students listen to George Carlin more. He's good for language sensitivity without labels.

A grader for a freshman-level class I took (we won't say how long ago) accomplished a lot with the remark, "There's a sentence that makes the grader go to the fridge for another Twinkie." Never mind the question of who bothers to refrigerate Twinkies; if there's some way to sharpen the writer's alertness to that kind of sentence so he doesn't write them, I'm for it. A lot of S&W seems to be aimed at eliminating the "Wait, what?" sentences by any means necessary.

Dawnstorm
07-15-2009, 10:16 PM
doesn't anyone ever get embarrassed around here?

Oh yes, I do. A lot.

Here's the smiley I tend to use on those occasions:

:o (Type ":o")

More later. I think.

Dawnstorm
07-16-2009, 11:11 AM
Hi, I'm back. (For better or worse.)


You mean besides my fondness for tangents? There's more than one way to be needless. You can have needlessly many or needlessly large, but either way the words themselves weren't necessary. "Sesquipedalian" is for special occasions, for instance.

Yeah, but if you have needlessly many you omit them. If you have needlessly large ones you replace them. Different methods, different effects. (Btw, I did not know the word "sesquipedalian". I looked it up, and chuckled. You do like to illustrate the things you say. ;) )

Going off on tangents, though, seems to be a requirement to profit from Elements. Strunk himself does it. For a while he talks about omitting words, and then he talks about re-writing to end up with fewer words. He doesn't talk about re-writing to end up with shorter words, but who knows what could have happned...


Funny thing, though -- the same young writers who put way too many words into an essay, thinking the professor will grade by weight, will also put far too few into fiction thinking everyone else can see what they can. They seem to feel that the number of syllables will make up for the want of setting. The reader ends up with the feeling of floating in an empty space with an odd cast of verbose people. (Often as not, these verbose people are gifted with the ability to see their own facial expressions. What style manual can I recommend for POV problems?)

This sounds like an interesting observation, but I can't quite follow the train of thought, here. Where'd you get that impression from? Are you a teacher?


But that's getting far from S&W and well into pedagogical issues. I still think S&W has a place in the world for getting people to think about language use instead of assuming that because they've used words for years they're doing it well. Nipping back to the practice metaphor, sloppy practicing doesn't make a musician. Before they can form an opinion, even a weakly-informed one, they have to have something to form the opinion about. If they've never heard of passive voice before, at least the S&W illustrations give them the thought, "Well, who was doing what?" That's a useful question in all sorts of places where technical passive voice is not, such as those awful sentences where the leading clause aims somewhere other than the subject and makes an alert reader say something like, "Wait -- since when is the president a vacation home?"

Well, I hope people don't think I'm against asking "Who is doing what?" It's quite an interesting question to ask. But it does matter how you introduce the problem. You do not use the question to stigmatise a perfectly fine grammatical function. (Vagueness as to agency is a minor point in Elements anyway. For that boogaboo we have George Orwell to thank.)

You lose me with your last sentence.


A grader for a freshman-level class I took (we won't say how long ago) accomplished a lot with the remark, "There's a sentence that makes the grader go to the fridge for another Twinkie." Never mind the question of who bothers to refrigerate Twinkies; if there's some way to sharpen the writer's alertness to that kind of sentence so he doesn't write them, I'm for it. A lot of S&W seems to be aimed at eliminating the "Wait, what?" sentences by any means necessary.

Dare I speculate on said graders figure?

Seriously: Did said grader describe the sentence? Provide evidence that it's not just a personal gripe?

Stigmatising grammatical structures, in my online experience, increases anxiety, not awareness. I mean, how often do you hear "Tell me how to recognise the passive voice so I can avoid it"?

Frankly, that's depressing. That's no attitude for a writer.