Thursday, December 24, 2009

Strunk and White

For 50 years, writers and editors have relied on a pocket-size grammar
reference book entitled The Elements of Style, but commonly referred to
as "Strunk and White" for its authors, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.

You probably recognize the name E.B. White as the author of Charlotte's
Webb, Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan. The Pulitzer Prize
winning author also wrote for The New Yorker for six decades.

The 1959 publication was actually White's edited and updated rewrite of Strunk's
1918 grammar guide. Strunk had been White's English professor at

The Elements of Style is the best-known and most widely used grammar
guide, having sold more than 10 million copies. But not everyone is
enamored of it.

In an essay for Chronicles of Higher Education in April, University of
Edinburgh English professor Geoffrey K. Pullum shreds Strunk and White.
Pullum's view: "(B)oth authors were grammatical incompetents."

Pullum 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. Its enormous influence
has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has
significantly degraded it."

Pullum then picks the volume apart, particularly the authors'
misunderstanding of active and passive voices.

Pullum concludes: "Several generations of college students learned
their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and
the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely
anxious and insecure whenever they write 'however' or 'than me' or
'was' or 'which,' but can't tell you why. The land of the free in the
grip of The Elements of Style.

"So I won't be ... toasting 50 years of the overopinionated and
underinformed little book that put so many people in this unhappy state
of grammatical angst. I've spent too much of my scholarly life studying
English grammar in a serious way. English syntax is a deep and
interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch
of trivial don't-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic
bumblers who can't even tell when they've broken their own misbegotten

The entire article can be found at:

Although Pullum is on target, I still recommend that you keep a copy of
Strunk and White handy.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? For two centuries, scholars on both sides of that argument have made passionate and reasoned arguments. Among those who doubted that the real Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon wrote the works attributed to him were Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Orson Welles, Sigmund Freud and Charlie Chaplin. Charlie Chaplin wrote: "In the work of greatest geniuses, humble beginnings will reveal themselves somewhere, but one cannot trace the slightest sign of them in Shakespeare. Whoever wrote [Shakespeare] had an aristocratic attitude."

Others point to the shear volume of Shakespeare's works and conclude that no one man could have written it all. Others say the real author left clues of the clever ruse in the works themselves where only the most perceptive can spot them.

More recent skeptics have included Sir John Gielgud, Joe Sobran and Derek Jacobi, the who produced the "Declaration of Reasonable Doubt."

Whom do the skeptics say wrote the works? The leading candidates are Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford; Sir Francis Bacon; Sir Walter Raleigh; and Christopher Marlow, a prolific writer believed to have faked his own murder to escape execution for heresy. Some say Marlow wrote from exile and credited the works to Shakespeare with the bard's collusion. Dozens of others have been suspected of writing the works, including Queen Elizabeth and King James I.

The author and columnist Joe Sobran's 1997 book "Alias Shakespeare: Solving the Greatest Literary Mystery of All Time" posits that the real playwright was de Vere.

Because the prevailing view that Shakespeare really wrote Shakespeare, there is no list of prominent celebrities who argue their case. But plenty of scholars have made convincing arguments. Here's a couple of readable arguments for:

Friday, December 11, 2009

Sports talk

Post-game interviews are icing on the cake for those writers who also love sports. Watching coaches destroy the English language is as entertaining as watching Ndamukong Suh destroying quarterbacks. Coaches, many of them with master's degrees, mangle phrases as badly as running backs. And coaches have a particular talent for confusing verb tenses. But you expect more from sports writers, who make a living with the language.

Sometimes sportswriters project their own errors onto coaches in quotes. One writer I read frequently online quotes coaches using "that" for "who," as in "He's a player that shows real leadership" instead of "... who shows real leadership." Another writer leaves off the auxiliary verbs in perfect tense. Instead of "We've got to turn this season around," it is "We got to turn this season around." The writer wouldn't write "He got to get better" or "I got to get better" but can't seem to hear the last part of the contraction "we've" during interviews. It took hearing the coaches' own words for me to realize it was the writers who inserted the errors.

The inability to use verb tenses correctly afflicts plenty of national sportswriters. It has become fashionable for coaches and athletes to speak of past events in present and future tense. "If we score on that fourth down we win the game." Ah, but the game is over and you lost, so it's too late for that.

A CBS sportwriter, in a column about this year's five Heisman candidates arriving in New York for tomorrow's award ceremony, makes six errors in the first four paragraphs. Example: "If there isn't a second left on the clock last week in Arlington, Texas, the fallout carries all the way to New York for the 75th Heisman ceremony."

But there ISN'T a second left on the clock. It ran out — twice, actually, as those who saw the game know — six days ago. The sentence should read: "If there hadn't been a second left on the clock last week in Arlington, Texas, the fallout would have carried all the way to New York for the 75th Heisman ceremony." That turns 28 words into 30. Is that really such a problem?

By the way, I pick Colt McCoy for the Heisman. He's had a strong season to cap a stellar four-year career. Mark Ingram can wait until next year. Suh will have to be satisfied with being selected first in next year's NFL draft. Gerhart managed to take 21 credit hours at America's most selective university while racking up 1,736 yards against tough competition. He deserves it as much as anyone. Tebow doesn't have the stats this season to become only the second player to win the Heisman twice, but if they give an award for greatest all-around human being on the planet, he's a shoo-in.