Steven Pinker on Linguistics, Style and Writing


Part I

Why do we put up with Legalese/Academese?

Theory 1: Bad writing is a deliberate choice

  • Bureaucrats insist on gibberish to evade responsibility
  • Revenge of the nerds
  • Pseudo-intellectuals bambooze their readers to hide the fact that they have nothing to say

Not true in general: good people can write bad prose. E.g. scientist who have nothing to hide and no need to impress.

Theory 2: Digital Media are Ruining the Language

Implication: it was better before the digital age. Which is not true.

A better Theory

  • Speech is instinctive, writing is and always has been hard -- Charles Darwin
  • Readers are unknown, invisible, inscrutable

    • Exist only in imagination
    • Can't react, break in, ask for clarification
  • Writing is an act of pretense
  • Writing is an act of craftsmanship

What we can do to improve the craft of writing?

The Elements of Style

  • Good sense

    • Use definite, specific, concrete language
    • Write with nouns and verbs
    • Put the emphatic words at the end
    • Omit needless words
  • Bad sense

    • Obsolete advice

      • To finalize
      • To contact
    • Baffling advice

      • 6 people - 5 people = 1 people
      • Clever person/horse

The Problem with Traditional Style Advice

  • Arbitrary list of dos and don'ts based on the tastes of the authors
  • No principled understanding of how language works
  • Users have no way of understanding and assimilating the advice
  • Much of the advice is just wrong

Why we can do better

  • Base advice on the science & scholarship

    • Modern grammatical theory
    • Evidence-based dictionaries
    • Cognitive science
    • Historical & critical study of usage

A Model of Prose

  • Writing is an unnatural act
  • Good style requires a coherent mental model of the communication scenario

    • How the writer images the reader
    • What the writer is trying to accomplish
  • Classic style - Francis-Noël Thomas & Mark Turner

Classic Style

  • Prose as a window on to the world

    • The writer has seen something in the world
    • He positions the reader so she can see it with her own eyes
  • The reader and writer are equals
  • The goal is to help the reader see objective reality
  • The style is conversation

Non-Classic Styles

  • Contemplative Style; Oracular Style; Practical Style
  • Academic typically write in Postmodern/Self-conscious style

    • The writer's chief, if unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naiveté about his own enterprise

Classic Style Example from Brian Greene

  • Universe expanding as a mental movie that can be run backwards
  • Abstruse mathematical notion of euqations breaking down explained by "similar to the error message returned by a calculator when you try to divide 1 by 0"

Classic Prose, cont.

  1. The focus is on the thing being shown, not on the activity of studying it

    • Not classic: In recent years, an increasing number of researchers have turned their attention to the problem of child language acquisition. In this article, recent theories of this process will be reviewed.
    • Classic: All children acquire the ability to speak and understand a language without explicit lessions. How do they accomplish this feat?
    • Corollary 1: minimize apologizing. E.g. The problem of language acquisition is extremely complex. It is difficult to give precise definitions of the concept of 'language' and the concept of 'acquisition' and the concept of 'children'. There is much uncertainty about the interpretation of experimental data and a great deal of controversy surrounding the theories. More research needs to be done.

      • Classic prose gives the reader credit for knowing that many concepts are hard to define, many controversies hard to resolve
      • The reader is there to see what the writer will do about it
    • Corollary 2: minimize hedging.

      • Somewhat, fairly, rather, nearly, relatively...
      • Shudder quotes: She is a "quick study" and has been able to educate herself in virtually any area that interests her.
      • Classic prose: better to be clear & possibly wrong than muddy and "not even wrong"
      • Also count on the cooperative nature of ordinary conversation. E.g. Americans have been getting fatter.
    • Professional Narcissism
  1. Keep up the illusion that the reader is seeing a world rather than listening to verbiage

    • Avoid clichés like the plague. E.g. We needed to think outside the box in our search for the holy grail, but found that it was neither a magic bullet nor a slam dunk, so we rolled with the punches and let the chips fall where they may while seeing the glass as half-full -- it's a no-brainer!
    • Mixed metaphors

      • Jeff is a renaissance man, drilling down to the core issues and pushing the envelope.
      • No one has yet invented a condom that will knock people's socks off.
    • A.W.F.U.L. (Amercians Who Figuratively Use Literally)

      • She literally blushed.
      • × She literally exploded.
  2. Classic prose is about the word, not about the conceptual tools with which we understand the world

    • Avoids metaconcepts: approach, assumption, concept, condition, context, framework, issue, level, model, paradigm, perspective, process, role, strategy, tendency, variable

      • I have serious doubts that trying to amend the Constituion would work on an actual level. On the aspirational level, however, a consitutional amendment strategy may be more valuable. == I doubt that trying to amend the Constitution would actually succeed, but it may be valuable to aspire to it.
      • It is important to approach this subject from a variety of strategies, including mental health assistance but also from a law enforcement perspective. == We should consult a psychiatrist about this man, but we may also have to inform the police.
  1. Classic prose narrates ongoing events

    • We see agents performing actions that affect objects
    • Non-classic prose thingifies events and then refers to them

      • Nominalization (a dangerous tool of English grammar)

        • Appear -> make an appearance
        • Organize -> bring about the organization of
      • "Zombie nouns" (Helen Sword)
      • Participants read assertions whose veracity was either affirmed or denied by the subsequent presentation of an assessment word. == The people saw sentences, each followed by the word TRUE or FALSE.
      • Subjects were tested under conditions of good to excellent acoustic isolation. == We tested the students in a quiet room.
      • Right now there is not any anticipation there will be a cancellation. == Right now we don't anticipate that we will have to cancell it.
      • The President is desirous of trying to see how we can make our best efforts in order to find a way to facilitate. == The President wants to help.
      • I'm a digital and social-media strategist. I deliver programs, products and strategies to our corporate clients across the specturm of communications functions. == I teach big companies how to use Facebook.
      • Mild exposure to CO can result in accumulated damage over time. Extreme exposure to CO may rapidly be fatal without producing significant warning symptoms. == Using a generator indoors CAN KILL YOU IN MINUTES.

Part II: How Understanding the Design of Language Can Lead to Better Writing Advice

Another Contributor to Zombie Prose: The Passive Voice

  • Overused

    • On the basis of the analysis which was made of the data which were collected, it is suggested that the null hypothesis can be rejected.
    • If the outstanding balance is prepaid in full, the unearned finance charge will be refunded.
    • Mistakes were made.
  • The design of language

    • Language is an app for converting a web of thoughts into a string of words
    • The order of words in a sentence has to do two things at once

      • Serve as code for meaning (who did what to whom)
      • Present some bits of information to the reader before others (affects how the information is absorbed)

        • Early material in the sentence == Topic
        • Later material == Focal point
        • Prose that violates these principles feels choppy, disjointed, incoherent
      • The passive is a workaround for this inherent design limitation of language

        • Allows writers to convey same ideas in different order
  • "Avoid the passive" is bad advice
  • The passive is the better construction when the done-to is currently the target of the reader's mental gaze

    • Better: A messenger arrives from Corinth. It emerges that he was formerly a shepherd on Mt. Kithaeron, and during that time he was given a baby. The baby, he says, was given to him by another shepherd from the Laius household, who had been told to get rid of the child.
    • Worse: A messagener arrives from Corinth. It emerges that he was formerly a shepherd on Mt. Kithaeron, and during that time someone gave him a baby. Another shepherd from the Laius household, he says, whom somehone had told to get rid of a child, gave the baby to him.
  • English syntax provides writers with constructions that vary order in the string while preserving meaning. Writers must choose the construction that introduces ideas to the reader in the order in which she can absorb them

Why is the Passive So Common in Bad Writing?

  • Good writers narrate a story, advanced by protagonists who make things happen
  • Bad writers work backwards from their own knowledge, writing down ideas in the order in which they occur to them
  • The begin with the outcome of an event, and then throw in the cause as an afterthought.
  • The passive makes that easy

Part III: Why Is It So Hard for Writers to Use Language to Convey Ideas Effectively?

The Curse of Knowledge

  • When you know something, it's hard to image what it is like for some else not to know it
  • AKA mindblindness, egocentrism, hindsight bias
  • The M&Ms study: the child cannot recover the innocent state in which he once did not know it
  • Studies have shown a similar effect in adults
  • The chief contributor to opaque writing

    • Doesn't occur to the writer that readers

      • Haven't learned their jargon
      • Don't know the intermediate steps that seem too obvious to mention
      • Can't visualize a sentence currently in the writer's mind's eye
    • So the writer doesn't bother to

      • Explain the jargon
      • Spell out the logic
      • Supply the concrete details
    • Even when writing for professional peers

How to Exorcise the curse of knowledge

  • Keep in mind "the reader over your shoulder"
  • The problem: we're not very good at guessing other people's knowledge even when we try
  • Better solutions

    • Show a draft to a representative reader
    • Show a draft to yourself after some time has passed
    • Rewrite with a single goal: making the prose understandable to the reader

Part IV: How Should We Think About Correct Usage

  • Some Usages are Clearly Wrong
  • Other are Not So Clear

    • Between you and I error
    • Singular "they" error
    • Split infinitive: To boldly go where no man has gone before
    • Preposition at the end of sentence
    • Dangling participle: Checking into the hotel, it was nice to see a few of my old classmates in the lobby.

The Language War

  • Prescriptivists: Prescribe how people ought to speak & write
  • Descriptivists: Describe how people do speak & write
  • Conclusion: We need a more sophisticated way of thinking about usage

What Are Rules of Usage

  • Not logical truths
  • Not officaly regulated by dictionaries
  • Tacit, evolving conventions

    • Tacit: Emerges as a rough consensus within a community of careful writers, without explicit deliberation. agreement, or legislation
    • Evolving: The consensus may change over time

Should Writer Follow the Rules?

  • It depends
  • Some rules just extend the logic of everyday grammar to more complicated cases
  • Some make important semantic distinctions

    • full vs. fulsome
    • simple vs. simplistic
    • meritorious vs. meretricious
  • Not every lesson is a legitimate rule of usage
  • Many supposed rules of usage

    • Violate the grammatical logic of English
    • Are routinely flouted by the best writers
    • Have always been flouted by the best writers

      • Singular they: Jane Austen
      • Sentence-final preposition: Shakespeare

How Should A Careful Writer Distinguish Legitimate Rules of Usage from Bogus Ones

It's all right to split an infinitive in the interest of clarity. Since clarity is the usual reason for splitting, this advice means merely that you can split them whenever you need to. -- Merriam-Webster Unabridged

There is no grammatical basis for rejecting split infinitives -- Encarta World English Dictionary


  • Modern dictionaries & style manuals do not ratify pet peeves, grammatical folklore, or bogus rules
  • Usage advice is based on evidence

    • Practices of contemporary good writers
    • Practices of best writers in the past
    • Polling data from a panel of writers (for contested cases)
    • Effects on clarity
    • Consistency with the grammatical logic of English
  • Correct usage should be kept in perspective

    • The least important part of good writing
    • Far less important than

      • Classic style
      • Coherent ordering of ideas
      • Overcoming the curse of knowledge
      • Factual diligence
      • Sound argumentation
    • Even the most irksome errors are not signs of the decline of the language


Modern linguistics & cognitive science provide better ways of enhancing our writing:

  • A model of prose communication

    • Classic style: Language as a window on the world
  • An understanding of the way language works

    • The Web of Thoughts -> A String of Words
  • A diagnosis of why good prose is so hard to write

    • The Curse of Knowledge
  • A way to make sense of rules of correct usage

    • Tacit, evolving conventions

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