October 2014

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Friday, October 31, 2014

Grammar Libertarian 

I've just finished reading Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. I highly recommend it if you think it's something you might be interested in.

Pinker brings his expertise in writing, linguistics, cognitive science, and his overall good sense to bear on the topic. Generally, he recommends using the "classic style", as suggested by Thomas and Turner in Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose. The guiding metaphor is "seeing the world". It treats the reader as an intelligent peer whose focus is directed towards something that the writer has noticed.

Classic writing, with its assumption of equality between writer and reader, makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.

There are several examples of good and bad styles. Additionally, he uses his professional knowledge to give great insights about the "curse of knowledge" (where the writer isn't aware of what the reader may not know) and about limiting the cognitive demands on the reader to handle complex sentences.

Being a "style guide", much of the book is taken up with many issues of usage. Pinker usually comes down on the side of accepting usage that many grammar sheriffs complain about (many are mistakes, overgeneralized rules of thumb, obsolete, etc.). He also agrees with me that the American punctuation rule of placing the comma or other punctuation mark that comes at the end of a phrase before the closing quotation mark, even if the punctuation mark is not part of what was intended to be quoted, is silly. Maybe it looks good to printers, but it seems illogical to many of us. I've flouted this convention a few times already in this post.

And, even though the subject can be dry, the book is still pretty fun to read. If you like sentences like this:

Even the sticklers can't agree on how to stickle.

...then you'll probably enjoy the book.

I confess, though, that I used to be a grammar sheriff. I had a store of knowledge about English that I was proud of, and I wasn't shy about telling people when they were wrong. I learned these things in school. They were confirmed by the practice tests for the Test of Standard Written English that was part of the SAT when I took it.

When I was a kid, whenever I played a game, I had to know the rules. If I was going to play baseball, I was going to know all about the infield fly rule and uncaught third strike. If I was going to be a reader, and a sometime writer, I wanted to know the rules of English usage. So, I learned the rules of the game. I knew when to use "like" and when to use "as". I knew what "anxious" means (worried), and what many fools think it also means (eager).

But, writing isn't that kind of a game. It's not about scoring points; it's about communicating facts and ideas. If you succeed, without annoying the reader, you did it right. There are many conventions to be aware of that help with this, but language usage evolves and effective communication evolves with it and varies based on the formality of the piece and the composition of the target audience.

Over the years, I've become much more tolerant of usages that I was taught were wrong. Perhaps it's been because of the examples set by people like Pinker and Eugene Volokh (who are both smarter than I am).

If it's good enough for them, then it should be good enough for me.