More Grammar Hate Mail

I got another piece of academic hate mail not long ago. Once again it was triggered by my 2009 Chronicle article about Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. A total stranger tracked me down to tell me this, under the subject heading “Elements of Style Critique” (recorded here, complete, exactly as he wrote it):

Dear Dr. Pullum,

As you so aptly indicate, the authors cannot reply, comment or feel remorse for your lambasting of their little book so I will take the liberty to do so. As opposed to the verbose, pedantic style evidenced in your blatherings, I will be succinct and to the point. You make the mistake of many claiming to understand and be knowledgeable in the King’s English. English usage, grammar and punctuation are all relative and arbitrary based on what is considered to be a nebulous concept of  "current day acceptable usage." You on the other hand try to quantify when black becomes grey; when tact becomes hypocrisy; both futile tasks as there is no solution. In math, 2+2 can only equal 4. In English, correct usage is dependent on the editor and totally relative. You foolishly try to quantify the unquantifiable and are critical of those who have, unlike yourself achieved a high level of succinctness and clarity in their writing style. I suspect the main motive for your harsh critique being jealously and resentment for something you can never achieve. It matter little if they, 75 years later, are what you consider to be out of date with specific rules—how totally silly of you to even make these accusations—everyone writes and speaks differently today than those living in the early to mid 20th century.

If you believe otherwise, you are just as delusional as you are dead wrong on your comments on Elements.

Your writing style is verbose with many unnecessary words. I understand why you are a critic of their book as you are neither concise your clear in your own personal style. On behalf of the authors, I say, shame on you for your over the top, lengthy and, many times, extremely unclear critique.

You get an "F" (failing grade) for your paper.


Now, it is hard not to mock a correspondent who begins by calling me verbose, and goes on to say (1) that unlike S&W I have not achieved a high level of succinctness; (2) that I have not achieved clarity; (3) that I am verbose; (4) that I am unclear; (5) that I use many unnecessary words; (6) that I am not concise; (7) that I am not clear; (8) that my writing is lengthy; and (9) that many times I am extremely unclear. I get it, I get it, I get it!

But let me reluctantly set aside the joys of tu quoque. The bit of the letter that truly mystifies me is the bit about how it doesn’t matter if Elements is dated.

First, if “everyone writes and speaks differently today,” and S&W are 75 years out of date, surely that’s pretty serious: We shouldn’t be teaching our students to write like septuagenarians.

But second, my beef with S&W was never about either usage or rules changing over the years. It was about untruthfulness. S&W repeatedly and dogmatically lay down usage prohibitions (don’t begin sentences with however, don’t use adjectives, don’t use the passive, don’t use plural agreement with none, etc.). First, these are not hallmarks of good writing today. And second, they weren’t hallmarks of good writing a century ago when Strunk was a professor and White was a high school student. These are factual claims, and they can easily be verified by examination of respected literature from the relevant periods.

It’s not that things have changed since some earlier period when the S&W rules were useful and appropriate: There never was such a period. S&W seem to have been making stuff up.

And surely that matters. Or is there supposed to be some inherent value in being warned against literary sins even when there is no sign either that they are sins or that they ever were?

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