50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice

Dr. Geoffrey K. Pullum is a Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. About three years ago, Dr. Pullum wrote an article entitled “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.” For those of you who considered yourselves an advocate or student of grammar like I do, this article is an entertaining read. For those of you who learned grammar in elementary school from a book called The Elements of Style, it seems even more essential.

My goodness, I never realized just how much of the grammar rhetoric and general “rules” we were forced to follow in grade, middle and high school permeated from this one source. Dr. Pullum condemns The Elements of Style and rightfully so.

The bit about passive voice truly hits home. Since probably about the fourth grade through secondary school, my teachers pounded into my head the terrible qualities of passive voice. But now I realize they may have grown up themselves with that rule pounded into their heads, as well. I thoroughly appreciate Dr. Pullum identifying the merits of passive voice. I work in news and, when I teach newswriting, I always make sure to qualify the statement “write in active voice” with “unless the sentence truly lends itself to being passive.” There are opportunities (yes, even in broadcast news) where passive voice is a better choice.

For instance, if you don’t know who or what committed an action or if the action or result is more than who or what committed it. For instance, if a historic bridge is destroyed by an unknown cause, a good newsperson would not write, “Currently unknown causes destroyed The Golden Gate Bridge,” the unknown causes are not nearly as important to a listening audience as what was destroyed. The better write would read “The Golden Gate Bridge was destroyed. Causes unknown,” or “The Golden Gate Bridge has been destroyed. Authorities yet to name a cause.”

In other words, hard-and-fast passive voice elimination is not always correct. Certainly, Strunk and White don’t help their case by incorrectly identifying passive voice examples. A pet peeve of mine, especially for newswriting’s and editing’s sake, is when people confuse tense and voice. Past tense is not the same as passive voice. It is perfectly acceptable to write, “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.” There is not a thing wrong with that sentence. Does “were” make the sentence passive voice? No.

The other truly nagging grade school rule of thumb is not starting sentences with a word like “however.” I cannot tell you how many times I was either chastised or had points taken off a paper for using “however” at the beginning of the sentence. Again, thank you, Strunk and White, for several years of general confusion and angst. I learned once I got to the university level that many of these “rules of thumb,” like not beginning a sentence with “and,” “but” or “however,” are arbitrary and, often, an individual educator’s preference. Especially in practical or creative writing, the author finds their own style and proper way to convey their message, sense of rhythm, voice, tone, etcetera. Grammar is a means to help an author do that and communicate clearly. Therefore, calling certain sentences ungrammatical just to be “bossy,” as Dr. Pullum put it, is absurd.

I wholeheartedly agree with the points Dr. Pullum made in his article, and I think every student should be made to read to demystify some of these “rules” with which they’ve become so well acquainted.

Read Dr. Pullum’s article in full here. It gets an A+ from me.

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