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Is Nothing Sacred? Taking Apart “The Elements of Style”

A little while back we acknowledged the beauty of today’s blogging world, one where information is rich and plentiful. It was in regards to a great educational myth that has become known as the “Bastardization of Dale’s Cone.”

Will at Work Learning

Often overlayed against Dale’s “Cone of Experience,” an intuitive model to describe “the concreteness of various audio-visual media,” are a series of percentages. They are part of what has come to be a longstanding educational assertion regarding learning processes. It begins with: “people remember 10% of what they read.” It goes on to “20% of what they see,” and so on.

While Dale’s cone serves as nice schematic to help with analysis, Dale did not conduct any research or use the research of others to construct his model. In addition, it seems that these percentages, presented to educators for the better part of 40 years, are also not backed by research.

Thus the neat or cute summary diagram that is often used as a way to describe the learning process is not backed by any meaningful research.

The Theory of Grammar

April 16th just so happened to be the 50th anniversary of the release of one of the biggest selling grammar manuals of all time, “The Elements of Style.” It is a book that virtually every college graduate has been exposed to at some point, either in advanced composition class in high school or within the first two years of college when students must meet their composition requirement.

But the standard-bearer thousands of teachers and professors have foisted upon students for so many years may not quite be the gem it is proclaimed to be. In fact, it is more of an unpolished stone, at least if you read Geoffrey K. Pullum’s assessment of William Strunk and E.B. White’s famous style guide.

Pullum is head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh. He is also the co-author of “The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.”

Cambridge GrammarThe author writes:

“The Elements of Style” does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense.”

And of Strunk and White, Pullum adds:

“This was most unfortunate for the field of English grammar, because both authors were grammatical incompetents. Strunk had very little analytical understanding of syntax, White even less.”

And as for making students better grammarians, consider this summary assessment:

“Despite the post-1957 explosion of theoretical linguistics, Elements settled in as the primary vehicle through which grammar was taught to college students and presented to the general public, and the subject was stuck in the doldrums for the rest of the 20th century.”

Some of Pullum’s criticisms:

• Some of the recommendations are vapid, like “Be clear” (how could one disagree?).
• 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.)

• Even the truly silly advice, like “Do not inject opinion,” doesn’t really do harm. (No force on earth can prevent undergraduates from injecting opinion. And anyway, sometimes that is just what we want from them.)

Pullam takes the book apart bit by bit and offers examples from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea as well as general looks at the summary work of Mark Twain and Henry James.

Nothing Sacred

Undoubtably, the knowledge explosion is tough to keep up with. But one of the great aspects of the internet is the rightful taking apart of some longstanding myths.

Whereas I was taught about George Washington and the story of a cherry tree or that Columbus was a great man and the discoverer of America, today we thankfully see truth winning out.

Hopefully educators are on to the issues of Dale’s Cone by now. But we are not so certain where English teachers stand on The Elements of Style. Is it time to follow Pullum’s lead and relegate Strunk and White’s famous tome to the educational scrap heap as well?


1 Rachel { 04.19.09 at 4:31 am }

Why should one be a syntactician in order to write a book on writing STYLE? A syntactician would call this a correct sentence: ‘The horse raced past the barn fell’, while Strunk and White might just prefer that the writer be a bit clearer than that!

2 Kippi { 04.21.09 at 10:31 am }

Oh, stick-in-the-mud! Perhaps I first picked up EoS as required reading, but I don’t keep it around to check my grammar. I’ll use it to take a break from writing — it makes me think, revise, re-read — and remember that a page can be delightful and transporting as well as informative. Like a sunny spring day, revisiting a ride on the best swing in the county.

3 Joe { 04.23.09 at 2:36 am }

That was very interesting. It’s easier to phase out Dale’s cone than “The Elements of Style”.

4 David { 04.27.09 at 3:20 pm }

I like EoS for the reminders that it gives. Maybe it shouldn’t be a textbook for grammar, but who really expects it to be definitive? For me it’s a great checklist. If I need to be technically correct, I go somewhere else.

5 William { 04.01.15 at 7:05 pm }

Pullum’s article is way more damning than you make it out to be. The examples you gave are what Pullum considered to be “harmless”. Elements is full of completely nonsense grammar rules that are not and have never been true. Such as “split infinitives” and never using passive voice (3 our of 4 examples are not even in passive voice), and they are constantly breaking their own rules.

6 William { 04.01.15 at 7:09 pm }

Elements is full of nonsense grammar rules presented as fact. They can’t even go a full page without breaking their own rules. If you actually think the authors knew what they were talking about, you are likely to have worse grammar after reading it.

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