EoS 50th Anniversary fallout


This past April marked the 50th anniversary of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, a manual for English grammar and usage. It’s the most popular and widely used style guide and is required reading in most high schools. And while it’s a touchstone for many writers and editors, it’s also a source of extreme irritation for other.

I turned in my badge

Personally, I haven’t read it.

Which is weird because I like grammar. I’m a big fan of the English language (use it all the time!). I occasionally get paid to write and edit stuff. I even have a Bachelor’s degree in English. So I don’t know how I made it this far without having opened a copy. It sounds like something that I’d have had on my bookshelf for years.

And I used to be an officer in what I call the Apostrophe Police, irritated constantly by other peoples’ flagrant abuse of the most basic tenets of the English language. I’d chafe while passing badly phrased billboard slogans. I’d point out to others how reprehensible and irresponsible Apple’s “Think Different” was. I’d wail and gnash my teeth when getting email that would confuse “your” and “you’re”.

But I’m old now. I’m getting gray hair. And I’ve discovered that life’s too short to get riled up when people mistakenly use “it’s” when they really mean “its”. I’ve got kids to keep off of my lawn and those new fangled ideas to rail against.

It all comes down to whether or not I understand what a person is trying to tell me. If they say something and I comprehend, hasn’t the language done its job?

The medium dictates

That’s not to say that I believe grammar should be dismissed from the classroom and put out to pasture. The role of grammar is an important one. It’s just not as important as some people think. Grammar is a guideline. It’s an agreed upon set of standards that make it possible for our language to do its job.

To think that our language and its rules shouldn’t change or shouldn’t allow for deviation and variation is foolish. Our world is constantly changing, and it’s just not realistic to think that the rules need be set in stone for ever and ever. Hard and fast adherence to grammatical rules can sometimes hinder communication.

English flexes and bends; this is its single greatest feature. It’s evolved from a mishmash of several different languages. It’s got a basic structure that allows for an incredible variation of sentence construction. It can assimilate any word and make it a noun or verb or adjective. It can do just about anything.

Rules are needed and they have their place, but as to which rules apply, that’s dictated by situation and medium. Granted, there has to be a basic underlying understanding of syntax, morphology, semantics, and phonology in order for the language to serve its purpose. But I’d argue that there is no grammatical rule that simply must apply in every single situation without question.

Rules are very important where uniformity is required. Examples like technical documentation, law books, scientific publications all require a common language and standards in order to ensure that the ideas are communicated as clearly as possible. But that’s what a style guide is for. It’s an agreed upon set of standards that are used in a certain situation and in a certain type of media.

But do the same standards apply when writing an email? A newspaper article? A text message? A letter? When talking to a child or a friend or a potential employer? No and no.

Grammar as a social science

I don’t believe that grammar is something that should be taught as a set of laws to be followed. Grammar is something that’s alive and changing everyday. It should be taught as a social science, key to understanding fellow human beings and the world that we live in.

I don’t think that there should be fewer classes taught about language, there should be more. Children should become experts in language and communication. Not only should they be able express themselves verbally or on the page with aplomb, they should expertly understand how others communicate.


Pullum on Strunk and White

50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice | The Chronicle Review