Be clear. Omit needless words. Revise and rewrite. To any English student, these aphorisms should be familiar: They’re the commandments inscribed in “The Elements of Style,” the legendary manual that has shaped Americans’ understanding of language for decades.
The writing advice of authors William Strunk and E. B. White is harmless enough. After all, who can argue with “Do not explain too much”?
But as it turns out, a significant portion of the book deals with not writing style but grammar, and that’s where the authors do serious damage.
Their grammatical advice, much of which is misguided, slowly but surely has convinced educated Americans that they have an inadequate command of their own language.
Take the authors’ advice to “use the active voice” instead of the passive. If you’ve ever been confused about the difference between the two, or wondered why your English teacher circled every passive sentence in red pen, Strunk is at least partly to blame: A century ago, he was one of the first academics to discourage it.
But as linguist Geoffrey Pullum noted in 2009, Strunk and White demonstrate a clear misunderstanding of what the passive voice actually is.
They miscategorize a whopping three of their four examples of passive constructions as active. (The sentence “There were a great number of leaves lying on the ground,” is in fact active.)
In other sections, the authors insist that we avoid split infinitives, and they consider ending a sentence with a preposition “bad grammar.”
But those supposed rules have no basis in the English language. As many sources can attest, the preposition rule was invented in 1672 by essayist John Dryden, who wanted English to conform more closely to the structure of Latin.