Steven Pinker on Good Writing and “Bad”

by Oct 13, 2014Linguistics

I’ve quoted Steven Pinker numerous times on this blog, but I’ve never heard him talk. He’s brilliant, and I found this to be a fascinating and clear-headed discussion on writing:

A few things Pinker added to my understanding on an issue—English usage—I’ve already spent a great deal of time on:

  • The only way to get good at writing is to read a lot. I knew that. But Pinker added a phrase: “read a lot of edited prose.” Good point.
  • “English probably has as many idioms as it has words.” Never heard that one. Going to file it away and look for someone else to back it up.
  • Many of the errors that betray someone as illiterate are actually exposures of illogicalities in the language: the possessive *it’s is a good example, or enormity to mean great size.
  • I loved “Prescriptistan”! Here’s a rough quote: “For those of you who are under the age of 60, there is a rule in Prescriptistan that says that you cannot say hopefully to describe the attitude of a speaker. But what about frankly, candidly? Why did we choose to eliminate hopefully? Because it’s comparatively recent, showing up in the 1930s. And it managed to get into a rulebook—and, therefore, to get fossilized into all of them (they tend to copy each other); it has become a shibboleth.”
  • The verb to “contact” was proscribed by Strunk and White; they said it was trendy and imprecise. They suggested “to telephone” or “to mail.” But nowadays with so many different ways to contact someone, we need an ambiguous word which doesn’t specify the means of contact. In other words, precision isn’t always what you want—you may not care precisely how someone contacts someone else, just that he does so. Sometimes the precise word you want is one that preserves ambiguity. (See my comments on “extension” and “intension” here.)
  • An excellent example for undercutting the etymological fallacy: December. It’s not the tenth month!
  • Pinker says he is always wary when he hears, “I’ve noticed recently that people have begun to commit such and such a usage or grammar error.” If you look it up, he says, the usage the person is complaining about has probably been around for a long time. He recommends using Google Ngram viewer to check it out. (I can second this; I have seen it numerous times.) Most usages that occasion contemporary complaints actually go way back in the history of the language, to a time when they were presumably unexceptionable. Some truly novel usages that are perceived as errors reach a tipping point and take over and become accepted, yes. But (to borrow a line from the witty Ammon Shea) centuries of critics have been saying that English is headed to hell in a hand basket—so it must be an awfully slow hand basket. Invidious has not become *inviduous, nuclear has not become *nucular, and mischievous has not become *michievious even though Webster’s 3rd—which purported to be descriptive, not prescriptive—made one cultural doyen predict in 1965 that all those forms would be accepted in 25 years. It’s been 50, and they still haven’t made it into dictionaries as he predicted.
  • Are Twitter or texting killing language? No; they just introduce new registers, something we’re accustomed to. We don’t speak in the same register at breakfast with our spouses as when we deliver a political oration.
  • Pinker was asked about the generic he. Pinker says that English is deficient here, not up to the demands of writers using it. The generic he doesn’t meet our needs. Who wants to say, “Jack and his sister played a game: who could find the ugliest picture of himself”? In half the chapters in Pinker’s new usage book he used he and she to denominate writer and reader, respectively. In half his chapters he did the opposite. That’s one solution. He noted another: the venerable Jane Austen used the singular they fifty-seven times, and not just in the speech of characters but in the voice of the narrator. The singular they is not illogical. Its meaning is a “bound variable.” Context indicates what they means.
  • But all this talk doesn’t mean anything goes! “Part of being educated is writing in conformity with the expectations of a literate readership.” That’s the key: learn to write so as to please and inform the majority of your readers. If you annoy a few pedants while helping everybody else, fine. If you can please them both, well, you probably can’t.

Stimulating and enjoyable stuff!

HT: Andy Naselli

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