In ET102 (June 2010), Geoffrey K. Pullum poured scorn on the book The Elements of Style by W. Strunk and E. B. White, saying it had a ‘vice-like grip on Americans’ view of grammar and usage' and that ‘almost everything they say on that topic is wrong.’ Elements is a fairly short book, containing 85 pages of advice on writing, presenting some of it in a way you could describe as rules of usage. Pullum thinks that many Americans go further and treat it as holy writ. I should like to defend Elements here and to attack Pullum's critical method. Some ET readers may be surprised by this, as in 1992 I wrote ‘The vital principle is that there are no rules of correct usage. The basis for choice is aesthetic, not technical, and since language rests on convention, there is no authority that can justify your preferences.’ I stick to that. How, then, am I going to defend Elements without seeming to contradict myself? I think the answer is in what I went on to say: ‘That does not mean you should not make linguistic judgements: you should, but on grounds of quality, not of correctness.’ (Who Controls the Language?, ET31, July 1992.)
Michael Bulley is a freelance writer.