At about 55%-way down the page http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497:

"Put statements in positive form," they stipulate, in a section that seeks to prevent "not" from being used as "a means of evasion."

"Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs," they insist. (The motivation of this mysterious decree remains unclear to me.)

And then, in the very next sentence, comes a negative passive clause containing three adjectives: "The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place."

That's actually not just three strikes, it's four, because in addition to contravening "positive form" and "active voice" and "nouns and verbs," it has a relative clause ("that can pull") removed from what it belongs with (the adjective), which violates another edict: "Keep related words together."

  1. Would the rewritten sentence in active voice be: "One hasn't built the adjective that can pull ..."

  2. What's wrong with the negative form here? Musn't 1 negation be placed somewhere?

  3. Would someone please explain the bolded phrase? I don't perceive anything wrong here; shouldn't the "relative clause ("that can pull")" be (rightly) connected with the noun? How does it make sense if it only belongs with the adjective: "that can pull a weak or inaccurate"?

1 Answer 1

  1. Probably the best way to rewrite the sentence is 'No-one has built the adjective ...'. ('One hasn't built ... is possible, but to my ears less natural.)

  2. There is nothing wrong with negative forms. That's Prof Pullum's entire point here. Some things are better expressed in negative form; some things can only be expressed in negative form. I can't think of any way to express this sentence in positive form. (That said, I would advise any speaker or writer in English to express things positively whenever possible.)

  3. The relative clause 'that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place' modifies 'The adjective', so the sentence (theoretically) should be 'The adjective that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place hasn't been built'. To my ears, this makes the subject noun phrase too long.

  • +1 But the built sentence is virtually canonical in US idiom -- "The man ain't been born that can lick him in a fair fight" -- so this is really another instance of Pullum contrasting White's sound idiomatic practice with his stuffy academic dicta. Aug 17, 2014 at 14:09

You must log in to answer this question.