Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style,” for 60 years a bible of good writing for many students and adults, is still valuable but has some “cockamamie advice,” says famed linguist Steven Pinker.

In an essay titled Writing in the 21st Century, Pinker, who teaches at Harvard, explains that people focus too much on grammar rules as the starting point for improving writing. Elements of Style and other style guides are filled with what to do and what not to do. And people often strictly adhere to the advice. Supervisors who edit also enforce the guidelines without ever questioning their rationale, and a number of the directives are obsolete or not factual, says Pinker.

Strunk and White’s caution against using contact as a verb, as in, Please contact me next week, is “bizarre” advice to a 21st Century writer, given that “contact” has been used as a verb for decades and is now entrenched in the language.

Written in 1959, Elements of Style, was the seminal usage manual, and millions of Americans have kept it on their office desks for decades. But Strunk and White had written the book long before language use and sentence structure were studied as a science. Today, experts in such fields as psycholinguistics, discourse analysis, and cognitive processing can provide more substantive advice about grammar based on scientific research. They know, for example, that the passive voice, which is frowned on in most style books, is sometimes appropriate because it serves a syntactical function. The structure of the sentence helps the reader link the thought to the previous sentence.

Pinker says Strunk and White could not provide a detailed analysis of passive voice because they had not been trained in grammar. “A lot of Strunk and White’s advice depended completely on their gut reactions from a career as an English professor and a critic, respectively,” he said.

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Ken O’Quinn teaches communications workshops. A former AP writer, he works with communications teams, and he teaches interpersonal communication skills for managers. He is a co-author of Focus on Them, about leadership, and is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business, available here at Amazon.com.

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