Grammar fight are fun for everyone!


In the April 17 issue of Entertainment Weekly, in a story about “Fast and Furious,” Benjamin Svetkey writes: “Tens of millions of dollars … were literally burned up on the film’s wildly over-the-top, teeth-rattling chase sequences.”

Well, no. Not literally. Not unless the filmmakers got tens of millions of dollars in cash and set the pile of money on fire (which they didn’t; I saw the movie). Millions of dollars were literally SPENT on the chase sequences, or the chase sequences literally COST millions. But in no way were tens of millions of dollars literally BURNED UP.

Speaking of grammar and usage, there’s been a bit of a smackdown lately about William Strunk and E.B. White’s venerable “Elements of Style,” which has been required reading for college students for half a century. Geoffrey K. Pullum, head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh (and, surprise-surprise, author of his own grammar book), writes a scathing rebuke of Strunk and White in the current issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. His article’s title? “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.” His thesis? “[The book’s] enormous influence has not improved American students’ grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.” OH SNAP!

But then Pullum’s rebuke of Strunk and White got its own rebuke from Michael Leddy, who writes a grammar/language/poetry/misc. blog called Orange Crate Art. Leddy picks apart Pullum’s article, finding instances where he has criticized Strunk and White out of context or simply misunderstood what the old grammarians were saying. He writes: “Pullum’s take on Strunk and White involves a significant degree of distortion and plain misreading.” DOUBLE SNAP!

I have no particular beef with “The Elements of Style,” except that it was written decades ago and has a certain fustiness to it. Some minor elements of grammar have evolved and shifted over time, and Strunk and White’s book, trapped in the past like a mosquito in amber, doesn’t reflect that. But if Pullum has been careless in his criticisms, then kudos to Leddy for calling him on it.

It all reminds me of my favorite language smackdown of all time. In 2004,  Lynne Truss’ “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” became a mass-market hit, and suddenly proper punctuation was all the rage. It was a usage guide for the common man! Except that, as The New Yorker’s Louis Menand gracefully and systematically demonstrated in his stinging review, the text of “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” is itself riddled with punctuation errors, thus destroying the author’s credibility. SNAPPITY SNAP SNAP!