Pullum: “Strunk simply doesn’t bother to look”

For readers of this blog and those who have followed the debate between prescriptivists and descriptivists closely, it’s hardly surprising to hear that Geoffrey Pullum, Professor of General Linguistics at Edinburgh University, is not particularly fond of William Strunk’s The Elements of Style, to say the least. Pullum has made no secret of his disapproval of the advice provided by Strunk. Describing Strunk’s advice as ranging from “limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense”, Pullum takes a firm stance against The Elements of Style, which, he argues, has enjoyed great popularity on American campuses. (Read his full comments here.)

Now Pullum has taken on Strunk again on The Chronicle of Higher Education. In “Dracula, Strunk, and Correct English Usage, Pullum illustrates Strunk’s “limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense” on the basis of literary evidence found in the usage of Strunk’s christopher_lee_tot_body_p-4623342contemporaries. Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula was published in 1897, which was soon to be followed by Strunk’s The Elements of Style published in 1918. Pullum uses example of disputed usages such as sentence-adverbial however to show how Strunk’s proscriptions are merely “personal peeves with no basis in either classic literature like Shakespeare or fine novels of his own time”.

Even though Pullum’s aversion to Strunk’s language advice is not surprising, I am still fascinated by how usage guide writers’ personal preferences can be completely contradictory to contemporary usage. We can find this pattern throughout the usage debate and even today (see Heffer’s attitude towards split infinitives in Tieken-Boon van Ostade & Ebner, 2017). Another proof of how correct usage is used to distinguish speakers. Us vs. them, correct vs. incorrect, intelligent vs. stupid, humans vs. vampires. And the debate goes on…

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About Carmen Ebner

Carmen Ebner is a PhD candidate at Leiden University Centre for Linguistics and currently investigates attitudes towards British English Usage. Carmen is part of the project Bridging the Unbridgeable: linguists, prescriptivists and the general public, which is supervised by Prof Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade.
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2 Responses to Pullum: “Strunk simply doesn’t bother to look”

  1. Carmen Ebner says:

    Reblogged this on Proper English Usage and commented:

    Read my blog post on the “Bridging the Unbridgeable” blog: Pullum takes on Strunk again

  2. adrianstenton says:

    I particularly liked Geoff’s “But 19th-century authors whose prose was never forced through a 20th-century prescriptive copy-editing mill”. I think I’ll use it in my project!

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