Pinker on style

As I have mentioned in an earlier post there is an ongoing debate in language between prescriptivists and descriptivists. The former want to see language as it should be, whereas the latter prefer to see language as it actually is. This war is reflected in Steven Pinker’s latest work – The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Pinker, like most professional linguists, is in the descriptivist camp.

This will not be a comprehensive review of the book. Instead, I intend to look at what I consider the most interesting parts.

He begins with what he considers good writing, with some fine examples from Richard Dawkins, Brian Greene and Rebecca Goldstein, his wife. I love the clarity with which these writers express themselves. Alas, such clarity is not universal. Particularly egregious examples are from those mainly left-wing academics. Pinker cites the late Dennis Dutton’s bad Writing Contest. The winner in 1998 was by the critic, philosopher and gender theorist, Judith Butler:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

It does bear a striking resemblance to The Postmodernism Generator, a website which uses an algorithm to randomly generate this kind of nonsense. Here is an example:

If one examines social realism, one is faced with a choice: either reject neocultural dialectic theory or conclude that the significance of the writer is deconstruction. It could be said that social realism holds that society, somewhat ironically, has intrinsic meaning, given that Lacan’s model of submaterialist capitalism is valid. The primary theme of von Junz’s[2] analysis of Sartreist absurdity is the role of the participant as artist.

The main theme of the works of Joyce is not discourse per se, but postdiscourse. However, if submaterialist capitalism holds, we have to choose between postdialectic discourse and capitalist nationalism. Lyotard uses the term ‘submaterialist capitalism’ to denote the difference between culture and sexual identity.

Why do people write so incomprehensibly? Pinker does not think that there is a conspiracy to write badly. The reality is that it is difficult to write well. There is something called the curse of knowledge – the difficulty of imagining what it’s like for someone else not to know something that you know. In fact, it’s hard work to sound simple and natural. In the case of postmodernist writers I do think this he is being charitable. I think that there is a lot of pretentiousness to hide the lack of intellectual rigour.

The final chapter is an A to Z of the areas of controversy. I have covered some of them in previous posts. Here is a selection:

Dangling modifiers

The rule decrees that the implied subject of the modifier must be identical to the overt subject of the main clause. This is one of my favourite topics as its one of those errors that can produce hilarious results

As a baboon who grew up wild in the jungle, I realized that Wiki had special nutritional needs.

For Pinker the principal criteria should be to avoid confusion. He argues that the decision of whether to rewrite a sentence in order to align its subject and modifier is a matter of judgement, not grammar.

Singular they

In a previous post, How to be a pedant, I pointed out the Fergie song Big Girls Don’t Cry. In it Stacy Ann Ferguson committed the following faux pas:

“And I’m gonna miss you like a child misses their blanket.”

As I said in that piece I have a lot of sympathy with the singular they. Indeed, as loyal reader Nick Gomez showed old Anglo Saxon used their for 3rd person possessives of unknown gender. In question tags we use they with singular words like nobody:

Nobody loves me, do they?

There have been gender-neutral pronouns that have been proposed over the years, such as hir, zhe, or thon. These have not caught on. How you solve this problem will depend on the level of formality, the nature of the antecedent (It’s not as problematic with a universally quantified antecedent like “everyone”) and the available alternatives. It is also possible to make the antecedent plural.

The singular they has history and logic behind it. Pinker cites experiments which show that this use causes little or no delay to readers’ comprehension times, whereas using a generic he slows readers’ understanding considerably.

Serial commas

The serial (AKA the Oxford comma) is one that precedes the conjunction before the final item in a list of three or more items:

This book is dedicated to my roommates, Nicole Kidman, and God.

As Pinker shows you have to be careful when you leave them out:

Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.

This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

Highlights of Peter Ustinov’s global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector

This is one area where Pinker is more of a purist. Other include disinterested as impartial, literally as actually and data as a plural countable noun. I do feel the need to disagree with the Harvard scientist. For me data should be an uncountable mass noun.

In my case Pinker really is preaching to the converted, but some of the Grammar Taliban would benefit from a read. Many seem to be stuck in the 19th century. I am not a linguistic anarchist. It is probably necessary to be aware of these rules, even if they often have little basis in reality. You may be judged as a poor writer for flouting (not flaunting) them. But we need to get rid of some of these bogus rules. Only then will we be able to have a more informed debate.


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