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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