Elements of criticism

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I recently fell in love with The Elements of Style1, especially the illustrated version. Quickly thereafter a web search revealed the criticism of Geoffrey K. Pullum, in the essay 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice. Turns out he’s not really a fan of good old Strunk & White. At first I thought it was a drive-by criticism; a one-off critique by a scholar with no follow-up. I realize now, that he has followed up.

These kinds of authoritative debates always frustrate me when I run into them: because everybody is right—and authoritatively so. I am always left wondering who to trust, which perspective is right, and where to turn next.

My current approach to these types of super-debates is to ask the following three questions:

  • Do each of the essay’s assertions make clear logical sense? Are there other sources which validate its claims?
  • Is the essay old? If so, it may be outdated. Has the author followed up with anything related recently?
  • Does the author have sufficient credentials at the time of writing? What about now?

It’s only fair that I apply these guidelines equally to both the original source, as well as the source of the criticism. In this case:

  • The assertions mostly make sense to me, an untrained writer
  • The actual text was last updated in 1999, there have been no follow-ups since
  • Strunk and White are dead, although they both were fairly qualified

The conclusion should be clear, Pullum is probably right. So what are some modern, simple, grammar books worth checking out?


  1. I really don’t know how it has evaded me all these years, but maybe for the better? [return]