September 1, 2019 0

Linguistics, Style and Writing in the 21st Century – with Steven Pinker


Why is so much writing so bad? Why do we have to struggle
with so much legalese, as in the revocation by these
regulations of a provision previously revoked
subject to savings does not affect the
continued operations. Why do we put up
with academese, as in “it is the moment
of nonconstruction, disclosing the absentation of
actuality from the concept, in part through its
invitation to emphasise in reading the helplessness of
its fall into conceptuality.” Why is it so hard to set the
time on a digital alarm clock? [LAUGHTER] There’s no shortage of
theories, and the one that I hear most
often is captured in this cartoon in
which a boss says to a tech writer, “good start. Need some more gibberish.” That is, that bad writing
is a deliberate choice. Bureaucrats insist on gibberish
to evade responsibility. Pasty-faced nerds
get their revenge on the girls who turned them
down for dates in high school and the jocks who kicked
sand in their faces. Pseudo-intellectuals try to
bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook,
disguising the fact that they have nothing to say. Well, I have no doubt that
the bamboozlement theory is true of some writers
some of the time. But as a general explanation,
it doesn’t ring true. I know many scientists
who do groundbreaking work on important topics. They have nothing to hide
and no need to impress, but still their writing stinks. Good people can write bad prose. The second most popular
theory is that digital media are ruining the language. Google is making us stupid. The digital age
stupefies young Americans and jeopardises our future. Twitter is forcing us to
think in 140 characters. Well, if the dumbest
generation theory were true, then that implies
that it must have been much better before the
advent of digital media, such as in the 1980s. Many of you will
remember that that was an era in which teenagers
spoke in articulate paragraphs. Remember when bureaucrats
wrote in plain English and every academic
article was a masterpiece in the art of the essay? Or was it the ’70s? The thing is, that complaints
about the imminent decline of the language can
be found in every era, such as 1961, in which a
commentator complained, “recent graduates, including
those with university degrees, seem to have no mastery
of the language at all.” Well, we can then go
back before the advent of radio and television. In 1917, a commentator
wrote, “from every college in the country goes up the
cry, our freshmen can’t spell, can’t punctuate. Every high school
is in disrepair because its pupils
are so ignorant of the merest rudiments.” Well, maybe you have to go back
even earlier to, say, the glory days of the European
Enlightenment, such as 1785, in which a
commentator said, “our language is degenerating very fast. I begin to fear that it will
be impossible to check it.” And then there are the ancient
grammar police said, “oh, for crying out
loud, you never end a sentence with a little bird.” [LAUGHTER] I think a better theory comes
from Charles Darwin, who wrote “man has an
instinctive tendency to speak as we see in the
babble of our young children, whereas no child has
an instinctive tendency to bake, brew, or write.” That is, whereas
speech is instinctive, writing is and
always has been hard. Your readers are unknown,
invisible, inscrutable. They exist only in
your imagination when you put pen to paper. They can’t react or break
in or ask for clarification. As a result, writing
is an act of pretence, and writing is an
act of craftsmanship. Well, what can we do then to
improve the craft of writing? For many decades, this question
had, at least in the United States, a single answer, which
is that you hand students this, the iconic The
Elements Of Style by Cornell Professor William
Strunk, Jr. and his student, EB White, who later
went on to glory as the New Yorker essayist and
the author of the children’s classics, Charlotte’s
Web and Stuart Little. Note, by the way, that
both these men were born before the turn of the century. That is, before the turn
of the 20th century. Now, there is undoubtedly
a lot of good sense in The Elements of Style. There are little gems
of advice like use definite, specific,
concrete language. Write with nouns and verbs. Put the emphatic
words at the end. And my favourite, their prime
directive, omit needless words, which is by the way, an
excellent example of itself. On the other hand, there are
many reasons why The Elements of Style and other
traditional style manuals like Fowler’s Modern English Usage,
probably the closest English equivalent, why they cannot
be the basis of writing advice in the 21st century. For one thing, a lot of
the advice is obsolete. Language changes. For example, Strunk and White
declared that “to finalise is a pompous, ambiguous verb.” Now, many of you will
be surprised to find that this perfectly
unexceptionable and useful word would be deemed pompous
and ambiguous at the time. But it just happened to be
new in Professor Strunk’s era. It grated on his ears. He declared it pompous, but it
then fell into common usage. And no one even remembers
that it was ever considered ungrammatical. Or to contact is vague
and self-important. Do not contact people. Get in touch with them, look
them up, phone them, find them, or meet them. Of course, Strunk
and White did not live to see the day in which
you could also text them and instant message them and
tweet them and email them and so on. Nor did they really appreciate
that to contact actually is an indispensable verb,
because there are sometimes when you don’t care whether
one person phones or meets or texts another, as long as
they do get in touch with them by one means or another. And for that purpose, to contact
is a perfectly useful verb. Some of the advice is
baffling, such as this– “the word people is not to
be used with words of number in place of persons. That is, you should
not say six people.” Why not? Well, of six people,
five went away, how many people would be left? Answer? One people. [LAUGHTER] Did you get that? By the same logic,
you should never say I have two
children or 32 teeth or two feet or any
other irregular plural. Or how’s this? Note that the word
clever means one thing when applied to people,
another when applied to horses. A clever horse is a good-natured
one not an ingenious one. [LAUGHTER] The problem with traditional
style advice is that it consists of an arbitrary
list of dos and don’ts based on the tastes and
peeves of the authors. It’s not based on a
principled understanding of how language works. And as a result,
users have no way of understanding and
assimilating the advice. And as I’ve noted, much of
the advice is just wrong. I think we can do better today. We can base advice on writing
on the science and scholarship of language, on modern
grammatical theory, which is an advance over
the old grammars that are reported
over from Latin, on evidence-based
dictionaries, on research in cognitive science
on what makes sentences easy or hard to read, and an
historical and critical studies of usage. It all begins with a model of
effective prose communication. As I have been emphasising,
writing is an unnatural act, and good style must begin
with a coherent mental model of the communication scenario,
how the writer imagines the reader, and what the
writer is trying to accomplish. And my favourite model of this
sort comes from a lovely book by the English scholars
Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner, and they call
it classic style. The model behind classic
style is that prose is a window onto the world. The writer has seen
something in the world that the reader has
not yet noticed. He positions the
reader so that she can see it with her own eyes. The writer and
reader are equals. The goal is to help the
reader see objective reality and the style is conversation. Now, that may seem
obvious, but classic style is just one of a variety of
styles that they explicate, including contemplative
style, oracular style, and practical style. But the one that they argue
that infects most academic prose is one they call post-modern or
self-conscious style, in which the writer’s chief if
unstated concern is to escape being convicted
of philosophical naivete about his own enterprise. They continue. “When we open a cookbook,
we completely put aside and expect the author to put
aside the kind of question that leads to the heart of certain
philosophical traditions. Is it possible to
talk about cooking? Do eggs really exist? Is food something about
which knowledge is possible? Can anyone ever tell us
anything true about cooking? Classic style
similarly puts aside as inappropriate philosophical
questions about its enterprise. If it took those
questions up, it could never get around
to treating its subject, and its purpose is exclusively
to treat its subject.” Well, I’d be defying the
principles of classic prose if I just talked about it
without showing you an example. And here’s an example. It is an article by the
physicist Brian Greene on the theory of
inflationary cosmology and one of its implications,
multiple universes. And he wrote it for
Newsweek magazine. Greene writes, “if space
is now expanding, then at ever earlier
times the universe must have been ever smaller. At some moment in the
distant past, everything we now see, the
ingredients responsible for every planet, every star,
every galaxy, even space itself, must have
been compressed to an infinitesimal speck
that then swelled outward, evolving into the
universe as we know it. The Big Bang Theory was born. Yet scientists were aware that
the Big Bang Theory suffered from a significant
shortcoming– of all things it leaves out the bang. Einstein’s equations
do a wonderful job of describing how the universe
evolved from a split-second after the bang,
but the equations break down, similar to
the error message returned by a calculator when
you try to divide 1 by 0, when applied to
the extreme environment of the universe’s
earliest moment. The Big Bang thus
provides no insight into what might have
powered the bang itself.” Now, in these few
sentences, Greene has covered some fairly
sophisticated cosmology and physics. But he does it in a way that
anyone can see for themselves. That is, if you can imagine
the universe expanding, you can run that
mental movie backwards and imagine that it
must have originated in an infinitesimal speck. And even the abstruse
mathematical notion of equations breaking
down, he presents in a way that anyone can
see for themselves. You can either pull
out a calculator and try it– try
dividing 1 by 0, and indeed you will
get an error message, or you can try to wrap your mind
around what it could possibly mean to divide the
number 1 into 0 parts. And that is classic style. The reader can see
it for herself. Now, many examples of
writing advice I think are implications of the
model behind classic prose. To begin with, the
focus of classic prose is on the thing being shown, not
on the activity of studying it. So here’s an example
of the kind of prose that I have to wade through
during my working day. A typical article in my field
might begin as follows– in recent years, an increasing
number of researchers have turned their attention to
the problem of child language acquisition. In this article, recent
theories of this process will be reviewed. Well, no offence, but
not a whole lot of people are all that interested in how
professors spend their time. A more classic introduction
to the same subject matter could have been, all
children acquire the ability to speak and
understand a language without explicit lessons. How do they
accomplish this feat? A corollary of this advisory
is to minimise the kind of apologising that academics
in particular feel compelled to do. Again, this is the
kind of sentence that I have to deal
with in my daily life. The problem of
language acquisition is extremely complex. It is difficult to give
precise definitions of the concept of language
and the concept of acquisition and the concept of children. There is much uncertainty
about the interpretation of experimental data and a great
deal of controversy surrounding the theories. More research needs to be done. [LAUGHTER] Now, this is the
kind of verbiage that could be deleted at a
stroke with no loss in content, because classic prose
gives the reader credit for knowing that many
concepts are hard to define and many controversies
hard to resolve. The reader is there to see what
the writer will do about it. Another corollary is to minimise
the hedging that is apparently obligatory in academic prose. The sprinkling of words
into prose such a somewhat, fairly, rather, nearly,
relatively, seemingly, in part, comparatively,
predominantly, apparently, so to speak, and presumably. And the similar use
of shutter quotes, by which a writer
distances himself from a familiar
figure of speech. So here’s an example from
a letter of recommendation I received. “She is a quick
study and has been able to educate herself
in virtually any area that interests her.” Well, are we to take this
recommendation as saying that the young woman in question is
a quick study or that she is a quick study, namely someone
who is only rumoured or alleged to be a quick study
but really isn’t. And if she’s been able
to educate herself in virtually any area that
interests her, are there some areas that
interest her where she tried to educate
herself but just failed? This habit was
brought home to me when I came across
an acquaintance at an academic conference. We hadn’t seen each other
in a number of years, and I asked how she was. And as she pulled out a picture
of her four-year-old daughter, and she said, we
virtually adore her. [LAUGHTER] Aw. Why the compulsive hedging? Well, there is an imperative
in many bureaucracies that the bureaucrats
abbreviate as CYA– cover your anatomy. But there is an alternative
in classic style– so sue me. That is, it’s better to be clear
and possibly wrong than muddy and, as the physicists
say, not even wrong. Also classic prose counts
on the cooperative nature of ordinary conversation. The fact that two
people in chit-chat will read between the
lines and connect the dots so that not everything has to be
stated with absolute precision. So if I were to say, well, in
recent years Americans have been getting fatter,
you interpret it as meaning on average
or in general. You’re not going to
hold me to the claim that every last one of the 350
million citizens of the United States have all
been getting fatter. I call these tendencies
professional narcissism, the confusion of the
activities of your guild or field or profession
with the subject matter that it is designed
to deal with. And it is not just a
problem in academics, but it infects many professions. News media, for example, will
often cover the coverage, giving rise to the notorious
media echo chamber. Much coverage of movies
and popular music will tell you all about the
first weekend gross receipts and the number of
weeks on the charts but say nothing about
the actual work of art. I’m sure I’m not
the only person who has been bored to tears
by the museum display where you get a
shard in the showcase and a lengthy
explanation of how it fits into a classification
of pottery styles. But it says nothing about
the people who made it or what they did with it. And many government and business
websites will instruct you into the bureaucratic
organisation but have no ready way to find the information
that you actually need. A second feature
of classic prose is that it keeps up the
illusion that the reader is seeing a world rather than
just listening to verbiage. And as such, it avoids
cliches like the plague. We are all familiar with
the kind of writer who dispenses sentences
such as we needed to think outside the box in
our search for the holy grail but found that it was neither
a magic bullet nor a slam dunk. So we rolled with
the punches and let the chips fall where they
may while seeing the glass as half full. It’s a no-brainer. Now, the problem with
writing in cliches is that it either
forces the reader to kind of shut down
her visual brain and just process the words as
blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Or if she actually does
think through the prose to the underlying
image, she’ll inevitably be upended by the
inevitable mixed metaphors. Here’s another sentence from
a letter of recommendation I received. “Jeff is a Renaissance
man, drilling down to the core issues and
pushing the envelope.” It’s not clear how you can do
all of those at the same time. Or this is from an article
in The New York Times. “No one has yet
invented a condom that will knock people’s socks off.” [LAUGHTER] And if you write
this way, you will be eligible for membership
in AWFUL, that is, Americans Who Figuratively Use Literally. And I’m told there’s
a British chapter. Now, it is perfectly acceptable
to say she literally blushed. It’s much more problematic to
say she literally exploded. And it’s very, very bad to say
she literally emasculated him. Now, third, classic
prose is about the world. It’s not about the
conceptual tools with which we understand the world. And as such, it avoids
the excessive use of metaconcepts, that is,
concepts about other concepts, such as approach, assumption,
concept, condition, context, framework, issue, level, model,
paradigm, perspective, process, rule, strategy,
tendency, variable. Admit it, you use these
words a lot when you write. As in, this is a sentence
taken from an editorial by a legal scholar. “I have serious
doubts that trying to amend the Constitution
would work on an actual level. On the aspirational
level, however, a constitutional
amendment strategy may be more valuable,
which is to say, I doubt that trying to
amend the Constitution would actually
succeed, but it may be valuable to aspire to it.” Or this from an
email I received. “It is important to
approach the subject from a variety of strategies,
including mental health assistance, but also from a
law enforcement perspective.” Translation– we should consult
a psychiatrist about this man, but we may also have
to inform the police. [LAUGHTER] Classic prose narrates
ongoing events. We see agents who perform
actions that affect objects. Non-classic prose
thingifies the events and then refers to
them with a single word using a dangerous tool
of English grammar called nominalization, turning a verb
or an adjective into a noun. So instead of appearing,
you make an appearance. Instead of organising
something, you bring about the organisation of that thing. Helen Sword, a language scholar,
calls them zombie nouns, because they kind
of lumber across the page with no conscious agent
actually directing the action. And they can turn prose into
a Night of the Living Dead. Participants read assertions
whose veracity was either affirmed or denied by the
subsequent presentation of an assessment word, which
is another way of saying people saw sentences,
each followed by the word true or false. Subjects were tested
under conditions of good to excellent
acoustic isolation, to wit, we tested the students
in a quiet room. But again, it is
not just academics who have this bad habit. It is also politicians. When a hurricane threatened
the Republican Party National Convention a few years ago,
Florida Governor Rick Scott said, “right now there
is not any anticipation there will be a cancellation.” That is, right now
we don’t anticipate that we will have to cancel it. And just to be nonpartisan,
on the other side of the American
political spectrum, here we have Secretary of
State John Kerry saying “the president is
desirous of trying to see how we can make
our best efforts in order to find a way to facilitate.” In other words, the
president wants to help. [LAUGHTER] And corporate consultants. A young man interviewed
by a journalist explained that he is a digital
and social media strategist. “I deliver programmes, products,
and strategies to our corporate clients across the spectrum
of communications functions.” And when the
journalist confessed that he had no idea what
that meant and asked him what he really did,
he finally broke down and he said, “I teach big
companies how to use Facebook.” [LAUGHTER] And product engineers. Portable generators
and combustion heaters used to carry a warning
more or less like this– “mild exposure to CO can
result in accumulated damage over time. Extreme exposure
to CO may rapidly be fatal without producing
significant warning symptoms.” Yeah, yeah. Whatever. And as a result, several
hundred Americans every year turn their
houses into gas chambers and asphyxiated themselves
and their families by running heaters and
generators indoors, until they replaced the
warning with this one– “using a generator indoors
can kill you in minutes.” [LAUGHTER] So classic prose can literally
be a matter of life and death. Yes, literally. So part two. How can an understanding
of the design of leaving lead to better writing advice? Another contributor to zombie
prose is the passive voice. This refers to the
contrast between a sentence in the active voice, such
as the dog bit the man, and a sentence like the
man was bitten by the dog, in the passive voice. It’s well known that the passive
voice is overused by academics, as in, on the basis
of the analysis which was made of the data
which were collected, it is suggested that the null
hypothesis can be rejected. For passives in one sentence. And lawyers. If the outstanding balance
is prepaid in full, the unearned finance
charge will be refunded. Three passives. But perhaps most infamously
of all, politicians. Here we have one of
candidates for president in the United States, New Jersey
Governor Chris Christie, who in explaining how it was that
his administration caused a three-hour traffic jam
by deliberately closing the lanes to a tunnel
during rush hour in order to punish the mayor of
a town that would not endorse his re-election, he said,
“mistakes were made.” The infamous politician’s
evasive passive. Not surprisingly, all of
the traditional manuals warn against using
the passive voice. Strunk and White say,
“use the active voice. The active voice is usually
more direct and vigorous than the passive. Many a tame sentence can
be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive
in the active voice for some such
perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.” Well, I’m glad to
hear from the laughter that a number of people
have noted that, yes, Strunk and White used the passive
in order to tell people not to use the passive. The other iconic bit
of writing advice is the classic essay, Politics
and the English Language by George Orwell, probably the
second-most widely distributed bit of advice on writing. And Orwell too says,
“a mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the
most marked characteristic of modern English
prose,” he wrote in 1949, showing that some
things don’t change. “I list below
various of the tricks by means of which the
work of prose construction is habitually dodged. The passive voice is wherever
possible used in preference to the active.” A passage that has not one but
two uses of the passive voice to tell people not to
use the passive voice. Well, the passive
construction could not have survived in the English
language for 1,500 years if it did not
serve some purpose. Why can’t we do without it
even when telling people not to overuse it? It comes down to the
design of language. You can think of
language as an app for converting a web of
thoughts into a string of words. Now, the writer’s
knowledge can be thought of as a kind
of mind-wide web what cognitive psychologists
call a semantic network. That is, a collection
of nodes for concepts. Here we have a fragment
of a person’s knowledge of the tragic events brought to
life by Sophocles in his play Oedipus Rex. So you’ve got a number of
nodes for concepts like father, kill, marry. You’ve got a bunch of
links that indicate how the concepts are related. Doer, done to,
about, is, and so on. Now, when you just lie back
and ponder your knowledge base, your mind can surf
from one concept to another in pretty
much any order. But what happens when you have
to translate your web of ideas into a sentence? Well, now you’ve got to
convert that tangled web into a linear string of words. In Sophocles play,
Oedipus married his mother and killed his father. That means that there’s
an inherent problem baked into the design of language. The order of words in a sentence
has to do two things at once. It’s the code that
English syntax uses to express who
did what to whom. At the same time, it
necessarily presents some bits of information to the
reader before others and thereby affects
how the information is going to be absorbed. In particular, the early
material in the sentence refers to the sentence’s
topic and naturally connects back to what’s
already reverberating in the reader’s mind. In the metaphor
of classic prose, it refers to the
general direction in which the reader is looking. The later words in
the sentence contain the sentence’s focal point,
what fact it is now conveying. In the metaphor,
it’s what the reader is supposed to now notice. Any prose that violates
these principles, even if each sentence
is clear, will feel choppy or
disjointed or incoherent. And that brings
us to the passive. The passive is a
workaround in English for this inherent design
limitation of the language. It allows writers to convey
the same ideas, namely who did what to whom, while
varying the order of words. In particular, it
allows a writer to start the sentence with
the done to or the acted upon rather than the
doer or the actor. And that’s why avoid the passive
as a general law is bad advice. The passive is, in fact,
the better construction when the done to
or the acted upon is currently the target of
the reader’s mental gaze. Again, I’ll give you an example. This comes from the Wikipedia
entry for Oedipus Rex, and it describes
the pivotal moment in the play in which the
horrific backstory is revealed to the audience. Spoiler alert. “A messenger arrives
from Corinth. It emerges that he was formerly
a shepherd on Mount Kithaeron, and during that time
he was given a baby. The baby, he said,
was given to him by another shepherd
from the Laius household, who had been told
to get rid of the child.” Now notice that this passage
has three passive sentences in a row and for good reason. As the passage opens, our
eyes are on the messenger– a messenger arrives
from Corinth– and so the next
sentence telling us something about the messenger
should begin with a reference to the messenger, and thanks to
the passive voice, so it does. He, the messenger,
was given a baby. Well, now we’re
kind of figuratively looking at the baby, at
least our mind’s eye is, and the next sentence should
then begin with the baby. And again, thanks to the
passive voice, it does. The baby was given to the
messenger by another shepherd. Well, now we’re looking
at this new shepherd and the next sentence telling
us something about him should begin with that. And again, the passive
makes that possible. The other shepherd had been
told to get rid of the child. Now imagine that the
writer of this passage had either followed the advice
in the traditional manuals literally or was the victim
of the kind of copyeditor that turns every passive
sentence back into an active, then you would have a
messenger arrives from Corinth. It emerges that he was formerly
a shepherd on Mount Kithaeron, and during that time
someone gave him a baby. Another shepherd from
the Laius household, he says, whom someone had
told to get rid of a child, gave the baby to him. Now, I think you will agree
that this is not an improvement. Your attention is
kind of jerked around from one part of the
story to another. And participants
kind of parachute in without warning or a
proper introduction. More generally, English
syntax provides writers with constructions that
vary the order in the string while preserving the meaning. Oedipus killed Laius. Laius was killed by Oedipus. It was Laius whom
Oedipus killed. It was Oedipus who
killed Laius, and so on. And writers must
choose the construction that introduces ideas to
the reader in the order in which she can absorb them. Well, why then is the
passive so common in bad writing, as it surely is? It’s because good
writers narrate a story, advanced
by protagonists who make things happen. Bad writers work backwards
from their own knowledge, writing down ideas in the order
in which they occur to them. They begin with the
outcome of the event, because they know
how it happened. And then they throw in the
cause as an afterthought, and the passive makes
that all too easy. So why should this be so hard? Why is it so hard for writers
to deploy the resources made available by the
English language to convey ideas effectively? The best explanation that I know
of is conveyed by this cartoon, and it’s called the
curse of knowledge. The fact that when
you know something, it’s hard to imagine what
it’s like for someone else not to know it. Psychologists give
it various names. It’s also called mind blindness,
egocentrism, hindsight bias, about half a dozen others. Perhaps the best
introduction comes from a classic
experiment that will be familiar to any of you
taking a course in child psychology, the M&M
study or in Britain you can call it the Smarties Study. A three-year-old boy comes into
a lab, sits down at a table. The experimenter gives
him a box of Smarties. He’s all excited. He opens it, and he finds that
instead of containing Smarties, the box contains pencils. So the child is surprised. And the experimenter puts
the pencils back in the box, closes it, puts it
back down on the table. And he says, OK. Well, now another little boy
is going to come in, Jason. What does Jason
think is in the box? And the boy will say pencils. Even though, of
course, Jason has no way of knowing that
the box contains pencils, the boy knows it, but
a newcomer would not. And in fact, if
you ask him, well, when you came into
the room, what did you think was in the box? And he’ll say pencils. Now that he knows
it, he can no longer recover the innocent state in
which he once did not know it. Now adults, of course,
outgrow this limitation– kind of, a little– because many studies have shown
a similar effect in adults. People will tend to attribute
their own obscure vocabulary to the population at large. If they know of fact, they
assume everyone else does. And in one study, the more
practise someone had at using a complicated gadget
like a smartphone, the less time they estimated
it would take someone else to learn it, because the
more familiar the were, the obviously easier it must be,
because it was easy for them. I think that the
curse of knowledge is the chief contributor
to opaque writing. It simply doesn’t
occur to the writer that readers haven’t
learned their jargon, don’t know the
intermediate steps that seem too obvious
to mention, can’t visualise a scene
that’s currently in the writer’s mind’s eye. And so the writer doesn’t
bother to explain the jargon or spell out the logic or supply
the concrete details, even when writing for professional peers. It’s a lazy excuse
that writers often have that they don’t have
to spell things out because, after all,
they’re just writing for their professional peers. But because of the
curse of knowledge, even prose written
for professional peers is often surprisingly opaque. I’ll give you an example. This is a passage from an
article on consciousness written in a journal
called Trends In Cognitive Science, which
is designed to present short, readable
summaries of research for the benefit of cognitive
scientists keeping up with one another’s work. So here’s a passage. “The slow and integrative
nature of conscious perception is confirmed behaviorally by
observation such as the “rabbit illusion” and its
variants or the way in which a stimulus is
ultimately perceived, is influenced by
post-stimulus events arising several
hundreds of milliseconds after the original stimulus.” Now, I’ve been in this
business for almost 40 years, and I have no idea what
they’re talking about. I have never heard of
the rabbit illusion, though I know an awful
lot of illusions. And I know what the
word stimulus means, but I have no idea
what they’re talking about when they talk about
how a stimulus is ultimately perceived. So I went to my
bookshelves, and I found one that had an
entry for something called the cutaneous
rabbit illusion, which works as follows– the subject closes his
eyes, sticks out his arm. The experimenter
taps him three times on the wrist, three
times on the elbow, three times on the shoulder. And the person experiences it
as a series of taps running up the length of his arm, kind of
like a hopping rabbit, hence the rabbit illusion. Well, why didn’t
they just say that? Not only is it no
less scientific to spell out the
concrete scenario, but it’s actually
more scientific because knowing that that’s
what the rabbit illusion is, I can then follow the logic
of what they are claiming, namely what it allegedly
shows us is consciousness does not track sensory
events in real time. But our brain is constantly
editing our experience after the fact to make
it feel more coherent. Well, knowing what the
illusion actually consists of, I can then ponder whether
that really follows, whether that’s a correct
interpretation of the illusion or whether it might have
some alternative explanation, something that I can’t do with
stimulus this and post-stimulus that. The temptations of
thoughtless abbreviation are I think best
captured by an old joke. So a man walks into a Catskills
resort in Upstate New York and walks into the
dining room, and he sees a bunch of retired
Borscht Belt comedians sitting around a table. And so there’s an empty chair. He joins them. And he hears one of the
comedians saying 47, and the others break out
into uproarious laughter. Another one says 112,
and then again they all just burst out into peals of
laughter, rolling on the floor. And he can’t figure
out what’s going on. So he asked the guy next to him. He says, what’s happening? And the guy says,
well, you know, these old timers, they’ve been
together for so long, that they all though the same jokes. So to save time, they’ve
given each joke a number, and now they just have
to say the number. They guy says, that’s ingenious. I’ll try it. So he says 31. Stony silence. He says 77. Everyone stares at him. No one laughs. So he sinks back down into his
seat and he says to his friend, uh, what happened? Why didn’t anyone laugh? The guy says, well, it’s
all in the way you tell it. [LAUGHTER] So how do you exercise
the curse of knowledge? Well, the traditional solution
is always keep in mind the reader over your shoulder. That is, empathise
with your reader, see the world from her point
of view, try to feel her pain, walk a mile in her
moccasins, and so on. Well, this is good
advice as far as it goes, but it only goes so far, because
a lot of research in psychology has shown that we’re not
very good at figuring out what people know, even when
we try really, really hard. A better solution
is to actually show a draft to a real-live
representative reader, and you will often discover
that what’s obvious to you isn’t obvious to anyone else. You can even show
a draft to yourself after some time has passed,
and it’s no longer familiar. And if you’re like
me, you’ll find yourself thinking
that wasn’t clear or what did I mean
by that, or all too often, who wrote this crap? [LAUGHTER] And then rewrite,
ideally several times, with the single goal
of making the prose understandable to the reader. Finally, how should we
think about correct usage of what is right or wrong,
correct or incorrect? Which is the aspect of writing
that by far attracts the most attention and arouses
the most emotion. Now, some usages
are clearly wrong. There is a famous and beloved
American children’s character known as Cookie Monster,
who’s famous on the Muppets and Sesame Street,
whose signature line is, “me want cookie.” Now, even,
three-year-olds appreciate and can laugh at Cookie
Monster, because even by their own lights, they
know that Cookie Monster has made a grammatical error. Many of you may be familiar with
the form of humour or alleged humour called the lolcat,
as in I can has cheezburger, the humour in which resides
in the fact that this cat is incompetent at English grammar. If we didn’t recognise that the
cat was making a grammatical error, we would
not find it funny, at least those people
who do find it funny. [LAUGHTER] Is our children learning? Even ex-president
President George W. Bush acknowledged that this
was a grammatical error in a self-deprecating speech
in which he pointed out many of his own past speech errors. But others are not so clear,
just again to be nonpartisan, the Democratic
President Bill Clinton, when he was running
for office in 1992, had as one of his
campaign slogans “give Al Gore and I a chance
to bring America back,” appalling the nation’s
English teachers who pointed out that this is
an example of the notorious between you and I error. And it should be “give
Al Gore and me a chance to bring America back.” Another Democratic
President, Barack Obama, said no American should live
under a cloud of suspicion just because of
what they look like. The infamous singular
“they” error. Captain Kirk of Star Trek,
the five-year mission of the Starship
Enterprise, “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Split infinitive. The Beatles, “you think
you lost your love. Well, I saw her yesterday. It’s you she’s thinking of,
and she told me what to say.” Anyone? Sentence with a
preposition at the end. Preposition at the
end of a sentence. And then I doubt many people
will recognise this American icon. This is Dick Cavett,
who was the host of our short-lived and
much-missed urbane, witty, intelligent talk show. And in an Op Ed in which he
was talking about a college reunion, he wrote
“checking into the hotel, it was nice to see a few of my
old classmates in the lobby.” Anyone? [INTERPOSING VOICES] Anyone go to school
before the 1960s? Yes. It’s a dangling participle. Well, what do we do with these
more contested usage errors? They have given rise to
what journalists sometimes called the language war. On the one side, there
are the prescriptivists who prescribe how people
ought to speak and write. They are also known as the
purists, sticklers, pedants, peevers, snobs, snoots,
nitpickers, traditionalists, language police, usage nannies,
grammar Nazis, and the gotcha gang, according to whom rules of
usage are objectively correct. To obey them is to uphold
standards of excellence. To flout them is to dumb
down literate culture, degrade the language, and hasten
the decline of civilization. Now, according to the scenario,
on the other hand side, we have the descriptivists,
who describe how people do speak
and write, according to whom rules of usage are
just the secret handshake of the ruling class,
and the people should be liberated to
write however they please. Now, I think there are reasons
to believe that the language war, however beloved it
is of certain magazines, is a pseudo-controversy. If it were really true,
then the prescriptivists would have to insist that the
lyrics to the famous Beatles song should be, it’s you
of whom she’s thinking. And the descriptivists
would have to claim that there is
nothing wrong with I can has cheezburger,
in which case they could not get the
joke of the lolcat. I think we need a
more sophisticated way of thinking about usage. So what are rules of usage? Where do they come from? They’re certainly
not logical truth that you could prove in
the propositional calculus, nor are they officially
regulated by dictionaries. And I can speak
with some authority here, because I am the Chair of
the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and
when I joined the panel, I asked the editor
in chief, so how do you guys decide what
to put in the dictionary? And his answer was,
“we pay attention to the way people use words.” That is, when it
comes to correctness, there’s no one in charge. The lunatics are
running the asylum. [LAUGHTER] So a way to make sense
of rules of usage is that they are tacit,
evolving conventions. A convention is a
way of doing things that has no particular
advantages other than the fact that everyone else is doing it. Paper currency is an example. A piece of paper with
a picture of the queen has no inherent value
other than the fact that everyone expects
everyone else to treat it as having value. There’s no particular reason to
drive on the right as opposed to driving on the left. There’s nothing sinister about
driving in the left or gauche or socialist. [LAUGHTER] But there’s an excellent
reason to drive on the left on this
side of the Atlantic, namely that’s what
everyone else does. Unlike the rules of traffic
or laws authorising currency, though, the rules of
language are tacit. They emerge as a rough
consensus within a community of careful writers without
explicit deliberation, agreement, or legislation. And the conventions evolve,
as I mentioned in the case of “to finalise and to contact,”
they organically change over time. So should writers
follow the rules? And the answer is, it depends. Some rules just extend the
logic of everyday grammar to more complicated cases. So let’s take is our children
learning, which not only George W. Bush but the
Microsoft Word grammar checker flags as an error with
the famous wiggly green line. “Is our children learning” is
equivalent to “our children is learning.” Everyone can see that
“our children is learning” is ungrammatical, and therefore
“is our children learning” is also ungrammatical. Or a slightly more complicated
case, the impact of the cuts have not been felt yet. Why did Microsoft Word put
a wiggly line under that? Well, when you think
about it, that sentence is “the impact have not been felt.” If you delete the
optional “of the cuts,” that just jumps off the
page as ungrammatical. Of course, it’s “impact
has not been felt,” and so it’s “the impact of
the cuts has not been felt.” The writer was just
distracted by the plural cuts that happened to be cheek
by jowl with the verb have. Also, there are some
rules of word choice that make important
semantic distinctions. Fulsome is not a fancy-schmancy
synonym for full. Fulsome means
excessive or insincere. And so one ought
not to thank someone for their fulsome
compliment, that is, that if someone gives you a
fulsome compliment, that’s a bad thing, not a good thing. Likewise, you should
not compliment someone’s elegant theory
by calling it simplistic. Simplistic means overly
simple or childlike or incorrectly simple. Nor if you think that
something is meritorious should you call it meretricious. If you don’t know why, you
can go home and look it up in the dictionary. In general, one should avoid
reaching for a hoity-toity word to replace a humbler synonym. If you do, you might
elicit the reaction of Inigo Montoya in
The Princess Bride when another
character kept using the word inconceivable to refer
to things that just happened. He said, you keep
using that word. I do not think it means
what you think it means. On the other hand, not
every pet peeve bit of grammatical folklore
or dimly remembered lesson from Miss
Thistlebottom’s classroom is a legitimate rule of usage. And many supposed
rules of usage turn out to violate the grammatical
logic of English, turn out to be routinely
flouted by the best writers, and often have always been
flouted by the best writers, singular they being
an excellent example. A recent article in a
conservative opinion magazine in the United States
argued that singular they was a feminist plot
that had been forced down our throats by angry women’s
liberationists in search of a gender neutral
means of expression and that we should resist
this linguistic engineering and go back to the crystalline
prose of Jane Austin. Whoops. Turns out that Jane
Austin used singular they 87 times in her novels,
as in “everybody began to have their vexation.” Likewise, if you’ve
got a problem with sentence final
preposition, maybe you should go back and
edit Shakespeare, when he wrote “we are such
stuff as dreams are made on.” And the same is true
of split infinitives, dangling participles,
between you and I, and many
other pseudo-rules. In fact, not only is obeying
bogus rules unnecessary, it can often make prose worse. Here is a sentence
from a communication that I got from my own
employer, Harvard University, in one of its
boastful newsletters. “David Rockefeller has
pledged $100 million to increase dramatically
learning opportunities for Harvard undergraduates.” Now, this writer twisted
himself into such a pretzel to avoid a split infinitive
that he churned out a sentence that, as far as I
can tell, does not belong to the English language. [LAUGHTER] In fact, obeying bogus
rules can literally lead to a crisis in
governance– literally. In 2009, Chief
Justice John Roberts, who was a famous
grammatical stickler, was charged with administering
the oath of office to Barack Obama. And the wording of
the oath of office, as stipulated in the US
Constitution would be “I, Barack Obama, do solemnly
swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President
of the United States.” But Chief Justice Roberts
spotted a split verb in that oath, and so he had
Obama say “I, Barack Obama, do solemnly swear that I will
execute the office of President of the United States
faithfully,” which not only is not a stylistic
improvement, but it calls the legitimacy of
the transition of power into question. And so they had to
repeat the oath of office in a private ceremony
in the White House later that afternoon. So how should a careful writer
distinguish legitimate rules of usage from bogus ones? Well, the answer is
unbelievably simple. Look them up. If you turn to a dictionary, say
Merriam-Webster’s, and look up split infinitive,
it will say, “it’s all right to split an infinitive
in the interest of clarity since clarity is the
usual reason for splitting this advice means merely
that you can split them whenever you want to.” Encarta World
English Dictionary, “there is no grammatical
basis for rejecting split infinitives.” American Heritage Dictionary,
Random House Dictionary, none of the dictionaries
say that there’s anything wrong with a split infinitive. So modern dictionaries
and style manuals do not ratify pet peeves,
grammatical folklore, or bogus rules. And that’s because
they base their advice on evidence, on the practises
of contemporary good writers, on the practises of the
best writers in the past, in some cases on polling
data from a panel of writers in contested cases,
on effects on clarity, and on consistency with the
grammatical logic of English. Also, we should keep correct
usage in perspective. Now, I do think that
it is a good idea to respect the legitimate rules. But in fact, they’re the least
important part of good writing. They pale in significance
behind maintaining classic style, coherent
ordering of ideas, overcoming the
curse of knowledge, to say nothing of factual
diligence and sound argumentation. And also, even
when we get grumpy about some undoubtedly
grammatical error, we should keep in mind
that they are not signs of the decline of language. And this is nicely captured
in an XKCD webcomic by Randall Munroe, in
which he shows a purist who is haunted by a vision
of things to come, by a ghost in the
middle of the night, and says “I bring a cautionary
vision of things to come. This is the future. And this is the future if you
give up the fight over the word literally.” [LAUGHTER] And yes, they are
exactly the same. So to sum up, I’ve suggested
that modern linguistics and cognitive science provide
better ways of enhancing our writing, a model
of prose communication, namely classic style,
in which language is a window on the world;
an understanding of the way language works, namely as a way
of converting a web of thoughts into a string of words; a
diagnosis of why good prose is so hard to write, namely
the curse of knowledge; and a way to make sense of rules
of correct usage, namely tacit, evolving conventions. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] It seems as thought the way
in which we’re acquiring words is definitely speeding up
because of digital technology. And I was wondering if you
thought the same was happening with usage and grammar. Are we seeing an
increase in the pace at which things are changing?

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