On Geoffrey Pullum’s Colloquium at Columbia University

About two weeks ago, I attended Geoffrey Pullum’s Linguistics talk on “Grammar, Writing Style, and Linguistics” at Columbia University. Throughout the talk, professor Pullum raised the issue of “stupid and unnecessary grammar advice”, which mirrors his paper “50 years of stupid grammar advice”. Specifically, he criticizes William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s grammar approach in their book The Elements of Style — Strunk was the author of the original book, while his student White was the one who edited and expanded Strunk’s first edition. Pullum argues that the book is full of inconsistencies, blunders, inaccuracy, and vanity.

Some of the issues that he found to be pointless are the section in the book titled “Use the Active Voice” urging readers to avoid using the Passive Voice as well as the section where he advises readers to use “that” only as a restrictive clause and “which” as a nonrestrictive relative clause. Pullum also thinks that it’s silly that American copy editors are following the second advice…One of my favorite issues that he tackled was hypocrisy: how Strunk and White don’t follow their own grammar advice. (This was kind of the main themes of his presentation as well as his jokes!). Some of their own advice that they didn’t follow are the use of “which” as a nonrestrictive relative clause as well as the use of “however” as in “this interruption, however, is not usually…” which violates Strunk’s own rule of adjacency and relatedness.

Additionally, Pullum argues that “our understanding of English has changed and evolved”, and that The Elements of Style doesn’t really keep up with these evolutions whether in the use of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun or in the treatment of words like “None” as plural as in “None of us are perfect”. Another is the use of “hopefully” as in “Hopefully I’ll leave on noon plane” which Strunk and White think is incorrect and ambiguous.

However, Pullum adds that he doesn’t propose a “radical grammar-free” solution, but that one still has to abide by spelling and grammar rules as necessary, especially in the academic realm.

Pullum was later asked by one of the attendees about the view of African American Vernacular, to which Pellum replied by saying that he didn’t delve into the topic of Standard versus Nonstandard distinction because it’s irrelevant to the discussion and is a whole different matter. However, Pullum’s chapter 3 in The Workings of Language, titled “African American Vernacular English Is Not Standard English With Mistakes” addresses this issue.

In general, Pullum’s reflection on both grammarians is that they both “treat grammar as if it came from the sky”. Toward the end of the colloquium, he urges his attendees to use Merriam-Webster’s concise dictionary of English usage, which he emphasized is more sensible in tackling grammar rules that reflect the majority of the English speakers’ speech rather than generalized rules that nobody uses. He also adds that the main reason he himself hasn’t written a book criticizing Strunk and White is that Steven Pinker’s book Sense of Style does the job very well.

Leave a Reply