It would surprise many writers and editors to learn that Strunk and White, authors of the most famous style manual of the 20th century, had only “a tenuous grasp of grammar.” Errors and groundless advice from the pages of George Orwell, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage might also seem unlikely. But Steven Pinker’s new book, The Sense of Style, unearths errors and contradictory advice in unexpected spots, including many venerable authorities on the English language.
This might suggest that Pinker’s book is an exercise in fussiness. Decrying errors and bemoaning supposed grammatical mistakes is a favorite pastime among self-proclaimed defenders of written English. The critic John Simon compared despoilers of the English language to child molesters, slave traders, and Nazis. In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Henry Higgins laments the “cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.” And the comments section of most articles features some irritable soul climbing on a soapbox and proclaiming the eternal verity of a subtle point of grammatical usage.
Pinker is not a self-appointed enforcer of arbitrary rules, and he has little patience for purists, prigs, and pedants. This is not because he endorses radical descriptivism—the idea that however people happen to use language is by definition the right way to use language. He actually embraces a moderate and sensible form of prescriptivism that recognizes the benefits of following certain guidelines in particular contexts.
His distaste derives from a basic confusion in the position of the puritanical prescriptivist. Rules of usage are what he calls tacit conventions. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the British convention of driving on the left side of the road; the right side of the road would be an equally legitimate choice. But it’s useful for everyone in a given community to adopt the same convention. “There need not be any inherent advantage to which choice is made, but there is an advantage to everyone making the same choice,” Pinker writes.
The outraged grammar stickler mistakes a convention for an immutable and fundamental law of the universe. Placing a preposition at the end of a sentence might be a breach of linguistic etiquette in certain venues, but it violates no essential and enduring law of the English language. Spearing food with your knife ignores social etiquette, but it’s not intrinsically wrong. Torturing children for fun, by contrast, is objectionable regardless of whether those around you have adopted the practice. Purists sometimes seem to think that disregarding rules about prepositions is as heinous as torturing children.
Not all etiquette is arbitrary. Eating with a fork rather than a steak knife probably reduces the odds of self-inflicted wounding, just as putting prepositions before the end of a sentence often enhances clarity or grace. (Readers of Pinker’s previous book on the decline of violence in human history might remember that not eating with knives was a marker of changing standards of safety and self-defense in early modern Europe.) The key is to recognize that etiquette changes over time and varies across circumstances.
This is why categorical injunctions tend to be inane. Take the rule that prohibits splitting an infinitive. When obeyed uncritically, it produces sentences like this: The board voted immediately to approve the casino. The writer has followed a rule but compromised clarity; whether the vote or the approval was immediate is ambiguous. Overeager obedience to rules of style presumes some grammatical Moses who received graven and perfect laws that demand automatic reverence. Just the opposite is true; accepted conventions change over time, and their legitimacy derives from the consensus of many careful and discerning writers, not the imprimatur of a single inspired sage.
What infuriates some purists is the fact that correct usage ultimately depends on the majority of speakers. Those who condemn the transformation of nouns and adjectives into verbs, for instance, do not object to words like dramatize, prioritize, or mentor. Their quarrel is with more recently formed verbs like incentivize. Pinker notes that roughly a fifth of English verbs began life as nouns or adjectives. The formation of neologisms is a natural process that no amount of outrage can halt. Thus the adoption of any particular verb is a matter of taste, not a question of absolute correctness.
Fear of offending the grammar police can even produce a novel type of error called a hypercorrection. When Bill Clinton told America to “Give Al Gore and I chance,” he was presumably so eager to avoid the common confusion between accusative and nominative pronouns that he followed a nonexistent rule that prohibits the accusative form. He would not have said, “Give I a chance,” but he was so determined to avoid the type of error exemplified in this sentence—me and my friends are going to the movies —that he made the opposite mistake.
Pinker’s approach reveals that the alleged war between descriptive and prescriptive linguists is an illusion. The fact that some prescriptive rules are valuable does not mean that every grammatical injunction should be obeyed. And the truth that language changes over time does not compel us to endorse any particular change. Good style is a matter of discernment and judgment; worshiping either proper or colloquial usage as an absolute standard is just a way to avoid the work of thinking about how to best convey your meaning. (In this paragraph alone I’ve committed three grammatical sins: splitting an infinitive, using the first person in formal prose, and starting a sentence with a conjunction.)
An embattled humanist watching Steven Pinker’s steady march across different subjects might feel alarmed as he moves ever closer to the ostensibly sovereign territory of the humanities. He strayed outside the conventional domains of cognitive science and linguistics to tackle a basic philosophical question in The Blank Slate and a phenomenon of social history in The Better Angels of Our Nature. Now he has written a book on style. What will he do next—close reading of literary texts?
That is precisely what he does at points in The Sense of Style, and his analysis is astute and revealing. Despite what some writers at The New Republic might believe, the opposition between the sciences and the humanities is just as silly as the war between prescriptive and descriptive approaches to language. Both assume a false dichotomy. Pinker’s style guide is not the arrogant encroachment of a scientist hoping to conquer the realms of the humanities; it is the effort of a nimble mind to clarify questions of enduring human importance by using the best available methods and information. This is precisely the work of any humanist worth the name.