April 18, 2009 12

50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice – ChronicleReview.com

By in Reading, Teaching, Writing

How much of the advice we take is based on solid empirical evidence? Surprisingly worrying little! I’d love it if someone actually tries to put together an estimation (let me know if you know one!).

The Chronicle, in a surprising streak of opinion articles, finds that Strunk and White’s claims are mostly baseless:

Simple experiments (which students could perform for themselves using downloaded classic texts from sources like http://gutenberg.org) show that Strunk and White preferred to base their grammar claims on intuition and prejudice rather than established literary usage.

50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice – ChronicleReview.com

If academics take advice without questioning the evidence, I wonder what will save the general public :) . Good to see people at The Chronicle debunking BS; I have fallen prey of recommending Strunk and White myself… :(

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12 Responses to “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice – ChronicleReview.com”

  1. [...] in clarity and grace, vars råd stämmer väl mot hur de främsta forskarna faktiskt skriver. (Via Academic Productivity.) Etiketter: handböcker, [...]

  2. John HunterNo Gravatar says:

    I have never been very good at using proper grammar or spelling. I do tend to find it fun to point out that spelling and grammar rules are hardly scientific truth, but I figure a good bit of my opinion is based on my limited competence in the area. It seems to me proper grammar is based on whatever people agree it is. It is subject to changing fashion. And that is ok. But yes, those that act like, failing to follow their preferred method is annoying. At the same time anarchy in grammar would be pretty annoying.

  3. BenNo Gravatar says:

    Strunk & White may not be 100% accurate when it comes to grammar, and I know some academics are enjoying beating on it now, but just about everyone could benefit from their style advise.

    Note also that where the Chronicle writer is critiquing S&W on passives, S&W is actually talking about verbosity.

  4. TimothyNo Gravatar says:

    A question for Ben: Which “style advise” [sic] from S&W would it be that would benefit writers: “Omit needless words”? “Be clear”? “Do not explain too much”–?

    As Pullum points out, it is exactly this kind of meaningless style advice that makes S&W of little real value to anyone who wants to learn anything about writing beyond the most elemental basics.

    IMO, S&W is highly popular and widely accepted because it operates on the same skill level as those who eagerly accept its shallow advice and who don’t notice its errors. It’s the “McGuffey’s Reader” of grammar and style books, good for primary-level skills only. The idea, as I have heard expressed often, that S&W contains “everything a writer needs to know,” is pure nonsense.

  5. GuestNo Gravatar says:

    Timothy:
    There is nothing wrong with “advise.” It is the British spelling of the word.

  6. TimothyNo Gravatar says:

    Maybe so, Ben. Maybe I’m missing something, but every British source that I’ve seen preserves the noun/verb distinction between advice/advise just like American English does.

  7. BenNo Gravatar says:

    I wasn’t the one defending my typo (though I appreciate the attempted assist); it’s a blatant late-night error.

    It may be true that advanced writers don’t need S&W’s elemental advice, but most of the academics I have to have to plow through would make a lot more sense if they followed some of this “stupid” advice. That’s all I was trying to say.

    BTW: How can we empirically measure good style?

  8. Michael L.No Gravatar says:

    @Timothy: I’ve responded to your question and asked a couple of my own in this comment.

  9. Mr. GunnNo Gravatar says:

    I’d give S&W a break, too. While some of it is needlessly prescriptive, it’s exactly the kind of very basic advice many people need to hear. To this day, I’ve never used the phrase “the fact that” in any sentence, and my writing has been better for it.

  10. DanielaNo Gravatar says:

    Sometimes grammar is just a matter of taste, and sometimes it’s just wrong. ;-)

  11. I took a course on the history of the English language in college, and one of the professor’s main tenants was that there is no right or wrong in language. It is what works. People can make up rule books if they want, but who gives them the authority to say what is or is not correct.

    Unless you are a student, taking a course in English grammar, in which case you better conform to whatever the text book says is correct, or you will be penalized.

    Outside of school, it is what works that counts.

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