Q&A with grammar guru Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker, Psychologist/Cognitive Scientist, Cold Spring Harbor, NY 6.1.09

Psycholinguist and New York Times best-selling author Steven Pinker gave a talk Sunday at Flyleaf Books to discuss his seventh book, “The Sense of Style.”

Copy co-chief Alison Krug spoke with Pinker about millennial language trends, grammar myths and his new book.

The Daily Tar Heel: What piqued your interest in linguistics and specifically linking it with psychology?

Steven Pinker: Well, it was the other way around. My interest originated in psychology, in particular in cognitive psychology: how the mind works. And for me, language is just one of the many remarkable things that the mind can accomplish. My Ph.D. thesis research was on a completely different topic in cognitive psychology in digital imagery. And language, like imagery, for me, is just an interesting thing that the mind does. I did not come to it from a love of language or a background in linguistics but from a fascination in the workings of the human mind.

DTH: Are there any grammar misconceptions that you would like to debunk?

SP: There’s nothing wrong with beginning a sentence with “and” or “because”; there’s nothing wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition; the idea that something’s wrong with a split infinitive is nonsense. And there are many others. And I think there are distinctions that people should respect. They should know how their words are going to be interpreted and not try to use a fancy schmancy synonym for a word if they aren’t sure what it means. You shouldn’t thank someone for their “fulsome praise” or “fulsome compliment” if you don’t realize that fulsome does not mean full. It means insincere or … excessive or explicitly designed to flatter but not sincerely meant. You should know the difference between “simplistic” and “simple,” and even small distinctions, like to know that it’s better to say “to home in” than “to hone in.” “To home in” means to return home, like what homing pigeons do.

DTH: What made you decide to write “The Sense of Style?”

SP:I have long enjoyed style manuals. I’m something of a style nerd. Ever since I was a graduate student, I read style manuals for fun and enjoyment. But it was a coming together of two parts of my life. One of them is I write books that try to reach a wide audience — that is at a point in my career, I had to unlearn bad habits of academes and write in a way that people would enjoy reading. The other is I study language for a living, so it seemed natural to bring together the practical challenge that faced me in writing popular books with the scientific knowledge of what goes into writing that people tend not to stand eventually. I have long fantasized about writing a book that would actually apply the modern science of language cognition to the task of writing clear and stylish prose. And probably the last straw was suffering under a copy editor who was going over my prose for a previous book, and I could tell that she was applying some of the rules from other style guides robotically. The guides do not explain the rationale behind the rules, so even though the rules were good in some places, they were bad in other places, and she just never acquired a comprehension of why the rules are there, when they should be followed, when they should be ignored. So I thought, OK, the world really needs a manual that explains the basis for its advice other than just issuing it dogmatically as a set of dos and don’ts.

DTH: Do you have a favorite how-to-write book or style guide?

SP:I like Theodore Bernstein’s “The Careful Writer,” although it’s pretty old, but it’s written with a lot of wit and irreverence. Of the books that analyze what goes into good writing, my favorite two are Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas’ “Clear and Simple as the Truth” and Joseph Williams’ “Style: Toward Clarity and Grace.” Both of those are influenced a bit by linguistics and cognitive science, although not as much as mine. I also enjoy some of the ones that I think are obsolete and have a lot of errors such as (William) Strunk and (E.B.) White’s “The Elements of Style.” There’s a lot of nonsense in them, but there’s a lot of good stuff as well, and they are each well written, and, I think, still worth reading, although not the final word.

DTH: As the chairperson for the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel, has there ever been a word or usage point that you’ve ever pushed for or against or felt strongly about?

SP: Well it’s really not my rule to push for my own … tastes because the point of the panel is to survey a sample of careful writers and to see what they think to translate their sensibility into advice for the use in the dictionary. The idea is there’s no one in charge; no one actually legislates what’s correct and incorrect. It’s just an evolving consensus. So what’s correct is what most careful writers think is correct, and that’s why we ask careful writers, and what they say pretty much goes.

DTH: Do you have any millennial language trends that you really hate or that you really love?

SP: I don’t particularly like the trend of the new construction of because nouns like, “I believe in global warming because science.” I don’t know how prevalent that is among millennials, but I don’t quite get that. I do think there is more reliance on taboo language — on profanity — in journalism than is best for graceful communication. And I’m not prudish about swearing. I do it myself. But I think that taboo words should be used judiciously so that they retain their power. One should be a little bit more creative in referring to an evil dictator than to call him a f*cker, for example. Even if he is a f*cker, you should be able to express that a little more gracefully.



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