Another Look at Strunk and White

Occasionally, it’s worth reading what authorities have to say about other supposed authorities. When we consult a language handbook, it usually doesn’t occur to us to second-guess the author. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, quite possibly the most celebrated handbook in the United States, offers an instructive example of why we should not be so trusting. Linguist Geoffrey Pullum, based at the University of Edinburgh, has written bitter denunciations of Elements. First in an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education and then in more elaborate form for English Today, Pullum systematically examines several of the guide’s pronouncements and shows how they are frequently based only on prejudice or, worse, reflect the authors’ severe misunderstanding of English grammar. To read Pullum’s work is to watch a career linguist eviscerate a venerable English professor and his student, the renowned E.B. White. Not only does he show their incompetence in the rules they cite, but also he quotes acclaimed authors doing precisely what Struck and White say should be avoided. Is there anything redeeming in the book, then? Not according to Pullum, who calls the vaunted guide an “unkillable zombie,” “one of the worst things to have happened to English language education in America in the past century.” It’s not going to show up on his reading list any time soon, in other words. Pullum’s main objections are related to grammar, and he dismisses comments about style as “vapid” or “obvious.” Perhaps so, but the guide’s focus on conciseness has a beneficial influence, and a few of its tips can help less experienced writers tighten sentences. Quite possibly, Pullum...

Two Key Insights for a Stronger MBA Admission Essay

A few years ago, Megan Lynam Overbay, then Director of Admissions at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, revealed some of the challenges her team faced when selecting candidates at the top-tier North Carolina school. Specifically, she confessed on a Fuqua-sponsored blog that her department had been struggling to find satisfactory essay prompts, ones to showcase effectively their candidates’ uniqueness. While grade point averages and GMAT scores provide an objective assessment of an applicant, essays are far more subjective. Overbay states explicitly that, for Duke, the essay serves as a stopgap measure, a piece that “will fill any gaps in the application, tie the application’s story together, and shed light on what truly makes the person who they are—beyond what is stated in the resume, test scores, and transcripts.” This is essay as color commentary. But as Overbay reflects on her time as Director and considers what the Admissions Department was getting for the most part, one senses a trace of disappointment: “Despite our best intentions, it can be difficult to convey what we are seeking through our essay questions, and we sometimes receive submissions that are regurgitations of information found elsewhere in the application, overly manufactured versions of what applicants think we want to hear, or in some cases, plagiarism of content found online.” This is an extraordinary concession for such a person to make, especially if we read between the lines a bit. The implication is that Overbay and her team were failing, failing in too many cases to get meaningful essays from their candidates. As is often the case, bad prompts generate poor (even plagiarized) writing....

Commonly Confused Words: ‘Home’ vs. ‘Hone’

People often use the word ‘hone’ when they mean ‘home,’ as in the following sentence: “Let’s take a minute to hone in on their weaknesses and then build an effective strategy.” The correct word here is ‘home.’ This is a more subtle error, and if you begin to pay attention, you will probably hear it uttered on radio and TV in addition to your everyday life. But as with grammatical errors in general, this trip up is viewed more sternly in written form. The verb ‘to hone’ means “to make more acute, intense, or effective,” as in, “He honed his Scrabble skills by playing repeatedly against the computer.” By contrast, the verb “to home,” means, “to proceed or direct attention toward an objective.” An easy way to remember the distinction between the two is to call to mind either a homing device—a guiding system that brings an object (typically a missile) to its target—or a homing pigeon—a type of pigeon with an innate ability to find its way back to its nest. Both can be effective means for capturing the abstract concept of distant-to-close, wide-to-narrow conveyed by the verb. English is a remarkably flexible language, and words have historically changed their meanings over time. It is entirely possible that over the next one hundred years ‘hone’ may take on a new meaning as a result of today’s usage. For now, though, stick to the proper definition, especially when you’re...