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The Daily Tar Heel

Shades of gray in grammar rules

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.

Similarly, there is nothing inherently unacceptable about split infinitives, other than the fact that they don’t occur in Latin.

Strunk and White also display a stubborn resistance to natural language change. To them, modern-sounding “-ize” words like finalize and prioritize are “abominations,” and nouns used as verbs (as in “he hosted a dinner” or “she debuted last fall”) are “suspect.”

“The Elements of Style” — and virtually every other usage manual out there — participates in what’s known as linguistic prescriptivism, which means they prescribe rules about how language should be.

Too often, these rules reflect nothing more than personal preference, as Pullum and co-author Rodney Huddleston note in their “The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.”

More useful is what’s known as the descriptivist approach: describing language the way it’s actually used.

Under this approach, if everyone starts using language in a way that disagrees with the grammar books, then it’s the grammar books that need changing, not the people.

And under this approach, grammar rules are just artificial constructs; they do not represent absolute truths.

So the next time a grammar infraction gives you pause, ask yourself whether the rule being broken is really a rule if nobody follows it.

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