Science Says You Can Split Infinitives and Use the Passive Voice #makereducation

Kid erasing

Mother Jones published a story on cognitive scientist Steven Pinker’s new book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. In the book, Pinker uses a scientific approach to take down some of the most commonly accepted writing commandments:

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.”

Pinker already gets ten points for defending Star Trek from grammar reactionaries:

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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  1. I’m with you on split infinitives. But a writer who avoids passive voice (it can’t be eliminated from prose, only reduced) grants a mitzvah for her readers, both making prose more vibrant and more clear. Using the passive voice should be a decision with a reason, not the default mode for sloppy writers, which is what gives it a bad rap.

  2. Contracts need precise english as do specifications and requirements.

    Strunk and White wrote “The Elements of Style” (EB White wrote Charlotte’s Web which is also concise and a good example).

    Humans error have correction requiring not proper ordering word understanding yet happens.

    That is an exception. Rules should be known and followed. Ohm’s law isn’t something which can be negotiated or evolves. There is artistic license and such.

    But beyond that, you are evaluated on your speech and writing – Spelling and Grammar. Shall we burn the SATs, or should I consider it irrelevant if they get in the low 500s on the verbal portion? If you speak like an illiterate – someone who has not listened nor read proper English, you are going to make a bad impression.

    Latin is a “dead” language which doesn’t evolve. It has its own grammar and syntax. “Tela Charlotte” is a latin translation. The Aeneid, and much great literature is available.

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