The Elements of Style: "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice"



Until I read S&W, it hadn’t really occurred to me that flowery and grandiose language were getting in the way. I thought that obscurity and profundity were linked.

When S&W informed me that brevity and clarity were virtues, my writing became about 50% less pretentious.

That’s an element of style.


I want a shirt that says this!


Yes. Eating grandma could have saved lives, Darn comma!


Good advice, but could be more generally phrased as “consider your audience.”

“Will this be clear to my audience?” Or, “Omit words that are more likely to distract your readers than provide insight.”


Geoffrey Pullum is a well-known linguistics popularizer. (Okay, that’s kind of an oxymoron. My point is that he’s not a nobody.) Did you read his linked-to piece? He takes pains to point out that he isn’t questioning their style advice so much as their understanding of the grammatical concepts and categories they invoke. He gives plenty of examples of S&W’s inconsistent and self-contradictory advice. Read the Pullum piece and see if you disagree with his observations.

I’m on Team Pullum on this one.


I work in academic publishing, I’ve done a lot of editing and copyediting, and there’s no question that some academics can’t write for shit, and ‘writing for experts’ is not really an excuse for not being able to express your ideas clearly.



I agree, but I think that she was addressing a strain of anti-intellectualism that crops up here from time to time, which basically rejects the entirety of non-fiction postmodern writing because it can be so dense and hard to parse to someone not familiar. Are there lots of bad writers of academic prose, I can’t disagree there, but that wasn’t what @milliefink was getting.

  1. Verbs HAS to agree with their subjects.

  2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.

  3. And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.

  4. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.

  5. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They’re old hat)

  6. Also, always avoid annoying alliteration.

  7. Be more or less specific.

  8. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.

  9. Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies.

  10. No sentence fragments.

  11. Contractions aren’t necessary and shouldn’t be used.

  12. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.

  13. Do not be redundant; do not use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.

  14. One should NEVER generalize.

  15. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.

  16. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.

  17. One-word sentences? Eliminate.

  18. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.

  19. The passive voice is to be ignored.

  20. Eliminate commas, that are, not necessary. Parenthetical words however should be enclosed in commas.

  21. Never use a big word when a diminutive one would suffice.

  22. Use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.

  23. Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth earth-shaking ideas.

  24. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”

  25. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times:
    Resist hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it correctly.

  26. Puns are for children, not groan readers.

  27. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.

  28. Even IF a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.

  29. Who needs rhetorical questions?

  30. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.

  31. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.


Well - it’s not really a question of that. I’m a physicist who worked a lot with history of religion, languages and anthropology. I expect experts who write for experts, as in peer-reviewed journals, to express their complicated ideas as intelligibly and thus simply as possible.

In some quarters of academia, especially during the “postmodern” period, writing has at times been wielded as a shield, using an impenetrable forests of trigger words like “discourse” etc to cover up for the apparent lack of substance.

Pointing out that this kind of bad academic writing violating the recommendation to “be clear” actually exists is hardly antiintellectualism.


“Elements of Style” is a good starting point for basic common sense style and grammar advice. However, the preferred guide at my school was the following, which was more up-to-date and was authored by someone with a sardonic sense of humour:





Academic writing may have even in excess of ninety nine problems, but “discourse” ain’t one.


Heh, point taken, i might even use the word myself from time to time.

However, my point remains:

  • Do express complicated things as simply and intelligibly as possible.
  • Don’t write simple things as densely as possible

That’s honestly not (to adress the first reply) antiintellecualism, quite the contrary I think.


I would argue that’s probably true of any field, inside academia or out. Plenty of people employ complicated language as a shield against criticism and as a means to make themselves seem more important and smarter than they are. I don’t think it’s just the postmodern turn in other words, as I’ve read plenty of people who employ Foucault as a critical lens, are writing complicated stories, and still manage to be clear in their meaning.

I do think that academics should do more interdisciplinary work and practice writing for other fields and for a lay audience so that we can translate denser, harder to explain ideas in a clearer manner. If STEM field folks and humanities folks got together more often and wrote FOR each other about the work they are doing, I think that would be enormously helpful for all of us.

But, even if you weren’t meaning it in this way, I do think that @milliefink is absolutely correct when she notes that criticism of postmodern writing has come to be a short hand for a kind of anti-intellectualism, more often than not aimed at those of us in the humanities (precisely to indicate how utterly dispensable we are in modern society). I don’t think that is in anyway invalidated by some academics lack of clarity.


::dreams of a world where economists are forced to learn physics::


I mean… we all have the core classes we have to take, but yeah, I think a more well-rounded set of classes in both the humanities and STEM fields would be quite beneficial to us all.


So physicists don’t use terms among each other that laypeople don’t know? They actually do, right? And yet, they’re NOT using a forest of words that most would find impenetrable?

If you’re a physicist who writes academic publications, are you claiming that a layperson would have no trouble readily understanding all the terminology?

While “discourse” isn’t a “trigger word” to most publishing scholars in the humanities (and probably in the social sciences), it may be to you as a physicist, and also to some laypeople when faced with writing written by humanities scholars for other humanities scholars.

If you’re going to complain about a word like discourse, I’m not surprised you have trouble reading scholarship that uses such words.

Goodness, maybe such writers are also using other shorthand terms for other concepts in their fields, and referring to things in other shorthand ways that they all tend to know, but that outsiders don’t necessarily know. How dare they!


In some quarters of academia, especially during the “postmodern” period, writing has at times been wielded as a shield, using an impenetrable forests of trigger words like “discourse” etc to cover up for the apparent lack of substance.

I disagree. I think that’s a myth. Calling “discourse” a “trigger word” is itself a “trigger move” in reinforcing this myth.


If only I had a Spider-Man thread for every time I was accused of this, I would… something-something.