Friday, October 03, 2014

LANGUAGE - What Science Says About Grammar

"Science Says You Can Split Infinitives and Use the Passive Voice" by Chris Mooney, Mother Jones 10/3/2014


Steven Pinker explains why you don't have to follow bogus grammar rules.

Leave it to a scientist to finally explain how to kill off bad writing.

In his new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century., Steven Pinker basically outdoes Strunk and White.  The celebrated Harvard cognitive scientist and psycholinguist explains how to write in clear, "classic" prose that shares valuable information with clarity but never condescension.  And he tells us why so many of the tut-tutting grammar "rules" that we all think we're supposed to follow—don't split infinitives, don't use the passive voice, don't end a sentence with a preposition—are just nonsense.

"There are so many bogus rules in circulation that kind of serve as a tactic for one-upmanship," explains Pinker on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast.  "They're a way in which one person can prove that they're more sophisticated or literate than someone else, and so they brandish these pseudo-rules."

Unlike past sages of style, Pinker approaches grammar from a scientific perspective, as a linguist.  And that's what leads him to the unavoidable conclusion that language is never set in stone; rather, it is a tool that is constantly evolving and changing, continually adding new words and undoing old rules and assumptions.  "When it comes to correct English, there's no one in charge; the lunatics are running the asylum," writes Pinker in The Sense of Style.

Indeed, Pinker notes with amusement in the book that in every era, there is always somebody complaining about how all the uncouth speakers of the day are wrecking the Queen's English.  It's basically the linguistic equivalent of telling the kids to get off your lawn.  Why does this happen?  "As a language changes from beneath our feet, we feel the sands shifting and always think that it's a deterioration," explains Pinker on the podcast.  "Whereas, everything that's in the language was an innovation at some point in the history of English.  If you're living through the transition, it feels like a deterioration even though it's just a change."

Thus, Pinker notes that in their classic book, The Elements of Style, published in the mid-20th century, Strunk and White instructed writers not to use the verb "to contact."  Look how that turned out for them.

The same framework allows Pinker to explain why so many grammatical "rules" that we all think we have to follow are, in fact, bogus.  His outlook is refreshingly anti-authoritarian:  You don't have to follow supposed grammar rules, he says, unless there is actually a good reason for following them.

Here, then, is a brief but highly liberating list of glorious rule-breaking activities that Pinker says you should feel free to engage in:

Do split infinitives.  For Pinker, the idea that you cannot split infinitives—for example, the classic complaint that Star Trek was wrong to describe the Starship Enterprise's mission as "to boldly go where no man has gone before"; it should have been "to go boldly" or "boldly to go"—is "the quintessential bogus rule."

"No good writer in English has ever followed it consistently, if you do follow it it makes your prose much worse," Pinker explained on Inquiring Minds.

Indeed, according to Pinker, this is a rather striking case in which the alleged prohibition seems to be mostly perpetuated by urban legend or word of mouth.  It doesn't even seem to be seriously asserted as a rule by any supposed style experts.  "This rule kind of levitates in mid-air, there's actually no support even from the style manuals," adds Pinker.

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