Why linguists shouldn’t give writing advice; or, Elements of Style, sorta defended.


That’s E.B. White on the left, who bears a striking resemblance to Ron Mael of Sparks.

So, that Chronicle of Higher Education article on The Elements of Style. Have you read it? All the nerds are talking about it. I have been a fan of its author, Geoffrey K. Pullum, and his Language Log for years.

But now, I don’t know. At least now. His take-down of The Elements of Style on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” rings as wrong-headed.

A bit of background. I’ve been interested in how these cunning linguists look at writing in practice for some time now. When I finish reading passages on Language Log’s previous dismissals of Strunk and White’s rules–use the active voice, for example, or don’t start sentences with “however,” avoid which in the nonrestrictive use–I get worked up, and then I think their ad antiquam arguments largely fall flat.

Usually, the points made by Pullum and his co-writers are too wonky and, frankly, too intelligent for me to figure out why in my own writing. The Chronicle article, however, breaks their anti-Elements stance down simple enough way for me to try and offer counter-arguments here.

Apologia: I am sure I will get some things wrong–terms, voices, etc.–but back-channel or respond elsewhere if this doesn’t make sense.

Take, as an example, Pullum’s objection to Elements‘ “Use the active voice” credo, which he describes as “either grammatically misguided or disingenuous.” Now, I agree that many if not all of the examples of passive voice used in The Elements of Style are either wrong or misguided or stupid. Nobody says “My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me,” for instance.

Set aside the possibility that the examples Strunk and White provide might serve as cartoonish examples of ineffective writing. Even if they were serious, it doesn’t make the writing principle of using the active voice wrong-headed in and of itself. Let’s take a look at some real-world examples where the passive voice is used, and examine why these choices were consciously taken.


Your request for funding has been denied by the review committee.
Passive voice, no? And there is a reason in using it? Would, say, an HMO letter use the active voice here, as in “The review committee has denied your request for coverage”? Surely not. But for an apprentice writer to merely understand why one would use it, to become literate in its use and mis-use, is no small thing.

Notice also the use of the second person (“Your”), then third person. Would Pullum rather we merely accept this usage here as standard, and pooh-pooh Strunk and White’s pointing out how this sentence is A. bad writing, and B. is bad for a reason?

Last summer, the sidewalk in front of Canal Jean Company on Lower Broadway was inhabited by Keanu Reeves.
Grammatically correct, Pullum and other linguists might say. Don’t touch a thing. But I don’t think I am alone in saying perhaps the most interesting element of this sentence is the appearance of superstar actor Keanu Reeves, and not the location along Broadway, the retail jeans outlet, the sidewalk setting, or the season.

Linguists might have some reason why writers–not just student or apprentice writers, but all writers–tend to bury the most interesting part of their sentences. In my years of teaching and editing, I can tell you that the passive voice is a common way to do this. Call it triage editing, call it hackery; but when you’re looking at student/apprentice writers use the passive voice to bury their ledes, it’s a problem that needs to be addressed, or at least named.

The Statue of Liberty is visited by thousands of tourists every year.
OK. The more interesting part of this sentences is Lady Liberty herself. Sure. But what about context? What about information? Here, the passive voice is employed because of a lazy employment of the passive voice, out of deference to the Proper Noun. How many times have teachers read a sentences like,

Discussing the photgraph of Whitman, the noted literary critic Geoffrey Sill points out that “[D]espite the naturalness of the pose, the image has a painterly quality,” and I agree.

I have seen this countless times–and again, not just in students but in, like, real writers. This scenario of passive voice lite, I think, comes out of a certain meek approach or unwillingness to engage with voices other than one’s own, a verb-and-voice insecurity complex. I defer to the psycholinguists of compositionists to research this.

Pets may be allowed.
Here, one could say the passive voice is to the writer’s advantage. If you are a landlord advertising an available apartment, you don’t want to give the impression it’s a selling point that you may allow pets.

So you soften that idea in the passive voice. It’s called passive for a reason.


Mistakes were made.
Sounds familiar, eh? This quotable quote, attributed lately to George W. Bush but on back to nearly every other elected official, might end with a “by me” at the end, one that is implicit or understood, or “by some other person/people I don’t even know.” Here, the passive voice is used for more insidious ends than scholarly shyness or just because it’s been used before. To merely say that this sentence is OK, however, is not OK. Again, Strunk and White to the rescue; they give us guidance how to write what you mean in a clear and simple manner.

In the Language Log book, Far From The Madding Gerund–again, a book I love, have bought twice because someone stole my first copy, and continue to enjoy–Pullum and his co-writer, Mark Liberman, imply that it is only with the intervention of linguists or trained grammarians’ textual analysis of those writers who don’t know their linguistic terms will political writing things change from its sorry state of affairs.

Call me a philistine, but I can see that “Mistakes were made” uses the passive voice for a reason. My students get it, too.

On evil, passive voice-hating writing tutors.
So let’s get away from the passive voice issue. Here’s a quote from the article, again referring to the passive voice:

Sadly, writing tutors tend to ignore this moderation, and simply red-circle everything that looks like a passive, just as Microsoft Word’s grammar checker underlines every passive in wavy green to signal that you should try to get rid of it.

I know writing tutors. Writing tutors are friends of mine. And I have never met a writing tutor who circles every passive-voiced usage and tells the writer to fix it. Much less use red ink.

More often than not, it’s telling the tutee that to know the difference is what counts. And yes, many times the passive voice is employed not just because it’s OK or has been used historically in other texts, as linguists try to assert, but because the writing is lazy, shy, or less-than-confident.

To be or not to be? Not to be?

Another quote from the article:

I have been told several times, by both students and linguistics-faculty members, about writing instructors who think every occurrence of “be” is to be condemned for being “passive.” No wonder, if Elements is their grammar bible. It is typical for college graduates today to be unable to distinguish active from passive clauses. They often equate the grammatical notion of being passive with the semantic one of not specifying the agent of an action. (They think “a bus exploded” is passive because it doesn’t say whether terrorists did it.)

Talk about passive voice. He’s been told “by” students and “by” linguistics professors about writing instructors. How about, you know, talking to writing instructors?

I’ll speak for myself here. Here’s what I do: I do look for every occurrence of to “be” and and I do see if it can be eliminated.

Why? Because it is usually indicative of weak writing, or at the very least may indicate some work on verbs in a given piece.

Set aside that it is correct from a linguistic, textual analysis point of view. Its use usually accompanies weak writing.

Give you an example.
In my 300-level Creative Nonfiction classes, we work on memoir pieces. Now, any given first-person-driven memoir piece may have two, three, maybe even four verb tenses, often in a single paragraph:

[1] Simple present, active voice for the action being described in the moment being remembered.

I [1] walk past the grocery store.

[2] Present perfect, active voice to offer commentary on what has been described.

An old man [2] has lived next door to the Acme for 30 years.

[3] Active future tense, then [4]future perfect passive to describe something tomorrow.

I [3] will get up early tomorrow, and he [4] will be sitting on his front porch, like he does every day.

And finally, [5] Passive Present Progressive.

His dinner [5] is being cooked by his wife inside.

My point, I think, is that writers, real practicing ones, need to wend their¬†way through the style manuals’ dictates, through the linguists’ soapbox speeches, and figure out which style and which grammar they will prescribe for themselves for every writing situation they are in.

Here, on my own website, I am writing in a cross of informal and formal writing; not scholarly writing, but not too informal for my writing to not be taken seriously. It’s a choice I made.

One could make the argument that writers who choose to begin sentences with “However” and a comma are not sloppy writers to begin with, or those who employ nonrestrictive “which”es all over the place are not pretentious or Anglophilic speculative fiction fans are writing in a paperese-type high style, or those who write in passive voice are ones for whom we should take pity on for their bad ear for getting their points across.

I disagree. If we are talking about academic, term paper or business writing, I especially disagree. To disabuse writers of their stylistic foibles, to not show them a standard way to go in certain rhetorical situations, is a disservice. Frankly, that’s too easy a point to make.

But the real point this article and many others miss is that there’s grammar and then there’s style. Strunk, then White offer elements of a kind of style, one which they envisioned as a standard, clean writing. Say what you will about what that style is, but it is a style.

Writers of all stripes could do a lot worse than take most of their advice. To limit books on writing to only ‘qualified grammarians,’ as Pullum seems to indicate early on in his article, reeks of territorial hydrant-peeing.

Writing is accomplished through a process. Not by a manual of any one kind. It’s not writing according to what Strunk and White says; we read The Elements of Style to hear the cranky-old-men voice out its rules and tell us there is at least one way to go, that there is at least one style to adopt, and we can either use it all, part or none of it.

Used properly, Elements may help a writer write a certain kind of clean, active prose.

Perhaps linguists should stop telling us what cannot be done or how people get things wrong, and offer us support for what we will figure out on our own how to right. Their job is to name the specimens, not tell us how to create them.