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◌  Pullum v. Strunk and White

15 April 2009

Geoffrey Pullum, a professor of linguistics and contributor to Language Log, has just written a harsh review of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. He’s badly wrong about it, in a few places about matters of fact, but mostly because he’s making a category error about the book’s domain.

There’s a meme in postmodernism and allied epistemologies that there are incommensurable worldviews. Wittgenstein, Kuhn, and other important thinkers I haven’t read said that the wall between two deeply different paradigms (pre- and post-Copernican astronomy, for the classic example) is so strong that they amount to mutually incomprehensible languages. You can’t argue a geocentric thinker into heliocentrism, because they can always add another epicycle; you have to bury them in suggestive evidence. I happen to think this is nonsense literally (because my system of knowing, like, doesn’t have the vocabulary for it, man) but useful metaphorically or qualitatively.

We make incommensurability-like divisions all the time. Rightly or wrongly and well or badly, we might resolve not to mix (or establish a formal exchange rate for) business and pleasure, church and state, friends and lovers, religion and science, loves for several offspring, advertising and editorial staff, judge and court-appointed defense, sciences and humanities, or whatever. We’re saying something like in order to better manage this field, I’m splitting it into nominally independent, concurrent, and (as best I can manage) non-interfering parts, which in practice will serve each other even though I will carefully see them as separate things.

A big example of this kind of firewall is pure research v. application. It’s reasonably clear to people from the first world that business does best when pure research does best. Quality of life would rise more slowly if every scientist were reassigned to work on immediate problems. Curiosities like lasers, λ-calculus, and fiber optics end up as vital infrastructure. To clear the vision of the people who are just messing around, we maintain this distinction, or conceptual distinction, or at least abstract acknowledgement that if it were possible to get funding without this distinction we would make one, between them and the people who will eventually use their work.

Pullum is wrongly accusing Strunk & White of breaking this membrane while he does it himself. I assume he knows he’s doing it, and he is an expert, but I think it’s prima facie wrong – or so brashly unprofessional that it might be a signal to read his review on some higher level that I’m not seeing.

Linguistics is a science. It describes the world.

The Elements of Style is not a scientific text. What it describes is in the subjunctive mood – ideal prose. It’s about ought, not is.

Pullum, in nearly every paragraph, overlooks what the book is and claims to be. He seems to think it’s trying to compete with his own academic text. It just isn’t. The impetus of his review is this bewildering conflation. He writes:

There are many other cases of Strunk and White's being in conflict with readily verifiable facts about English. Consider the claim that a sentence should not begin with "however" in its connective adverb sense ("when the meaning is 'nevertheless'").

Searching for "however" at the beginnings of sentences and "however" elsewhere reveals that good authors alternate between placing the adverb first and placing it after the subject. The ratios vary. Mark Liberman, of the University of Pennsylvania, checked half a dozen of Mark Twain's books and found roughly seven instances of "however" at the beginning of a sentence for each three placed after the subject, whereas in five selected books by Henry James, the ratio was one to 15. In Dracula I found a ratio of about one to five. The evidence cannot possibly support a claim that "however" at the beginning of a sentence should be eschewed. Strunk and White are just wrong about the facts of English syntax.

Three aspects of one problem:

  1. Maybe Strunk and White didn’t think Twain, James, and Stoker are perfect prose stylists, in which case that evidence is immaterial.

  2. Pullum’s argument is in two domains: esthetics, in which should has meaning, and science, in which a statistical sample has meaning. Without an explicit bridge, it’s two gory syllogism-stumps in two different worlds of discourse.

  3. For Strunk and White to be wrong about the facts of English syntax, they would have had to make a claim about English syntax, instead of what they did, which was to give subjective advice about what might read well.

Many professional linguists could stand to calm down about proscriptive grammarians. People who write style guides are a natural phenomenon in the system that linguists study, and the claims they make about the ability of the reader to write more pleasingly tend to be entirely disjoint from, and thus compatible with, the science of language. They aren’t posing as real linguists.

Strunk and White are like expert gardeners. They wrote a very short introduction to gardening and sold it as a gardening book. Gardeners used it to learn about gardening, or, considering just how short it is, as inspiration to think consciously about gardening, and so it started or helped many careers in gardening.

Pullum is like an expert botanist. He reads the gardening book and says This is absurd! They plant things next to each other that come from different continents. Why prune an apple tree when it grows fine on its own? Their suggestions for crop rotation are a ludicrous simplification of natural interspersal, and so on.

So I say Pullum is wrong – not, as a big chunk of the internet suggests, because he dared to doubt a holy book, but because he’s criticizing it as something it isn’t. The best point in his essay is one he keeps putting to the side: that The Elements of Style is sometimes presented by misguided teachers as a linguistics textbook, thus confusing the complete description of language with its tasteful practice. It’s a point I would like to see him expand after he works out the difference himself.