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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

On Writing Correct and Clear English

The Sense of Style 
Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is indulgent when it comes to grammar and usage. In the book’s final chapter, “Telling Right from Wrong,” he goes after the language purists.

He is not concerned with the “Twittering teenagers or Facebooking freshmen”—the purists he is after are the “sticklers, pedants, peevers, snobs, snoots, nit-pickers, traditionalists, language police, usage nannies, grammar Nazis and the Gotcha! Gang,” who, in their zeal to purify usage and safeguard language, make it difficult to think clearly.

“When it comes to correct English, there’s no one in charge; the lunatics are running the asylum,” writes Pinker. He asserts that popular usage determines what is right or wrong in English.

He gives several examples of prominent writers neglecting the rules of usage. I learned from the book about Jane Austen’s habit of using the non-gender plural pronoun after a singular subject.

However, Pinker accepts that there will be verbal chaos if the fundamental rules of grammar and usage are not followed and the words cease to have a specific definition and function. He gives several examples to show how a misplaced comma can lead to a major ambiguity.

He advocates a middle path between the rigid prescriptivists (the sticklers for every rule of grammar and usage) and the easygoing descriptivists (who believe that the rules of grammar are inspired by the way people speak).

A prescriptivist rule must be obeyed if there are reasons to obey it. A rule can be dumped only if it is based on a crackpot theory or is originated by a self-anointed maven or has been flouted by eminent past writers or is based on a misdiagnosis of a problem and is known to create greater ambiguity in a sentence.

In his prologue, Pinker contests the view that “the rise of the Internet, with its texting and tweeting, its email and chatrooms” is in someway a threat to the English language.

The view that the quality of language is in a terminal decline is as old as language itself—while making this point Pinker shows a cartoon of “ancient grammar police.” He quotes William Caxton, the man who set up England’s first printing press in 1478. Caxton wrote: “And certaynly our langage now vsed veryeth ferre from what whiche was vsed and spoken when I was borne.”

In the chapter, “The Curse of Knowledge,” Pinker points out that many technical writers don't realize that they know much more about their subject than the people they are writing for. He says that one should avoid jargon, keep sentences short, and discard, as far as possible, the complicated and superfluous words.

In the chapter, “The Web, the Tree, and the String,” he suggests that many good writers get by purely on intuition. “Just below the surface of these inchoate intuitions, I believe, is a tacit awareness that the writer’s goal is to encode a web of ideas into a string of words using a tree of phrases. Aspiring wordsmiths would do well to cultivate this awareness.”

He suggests that one should read the prose out loud to oneself in order to detect any awkwardnesses that may not have been obvious while reading silently.

On the whole, The Sense of Style is an eloquently written and informative book.

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