Don't cheese off Steven Pinker

May 31, 2012|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

The New Yorker's muddled article on language by Joan Acocella has generated responses, some incredulous, some furious, from linguists and lexicographers demonstrating just how wrong-headed and ignorant the magazine is about prescriptivism and descriptivism.

Now Steven Pinker, a principal target of Ms. Acocella's inept criticism, has weighed in with an article at Slate, "False Fronts in the Language Wars," that will gladden your heart if you enjoy seeing a demolition job expertly performed. You might as well skip the rest of this post and go there. It will repay your attention.

Apart from that demolition, there are some elegantly lucid passages about language, its rules and conventions, that illuminate the discourse and identify the indisputable points that The New Yorker and hard-shell prescriptivists in general have difficulty comprehending.

I'll quote a couple of them.

Rules of proper usage are tacit conventions. Conventions are unstated agreements within a community to abide by a single way of doing things—not because there is any inherent advantage to the choice, but because there is an advantage to everyone making the same choice. Standardized weights and measures, electrical voltages and cables, computer file formats, the Gregorian calendar, and paper currency are familiar examples. ...

The conventions of linguistic usage are tacit. The rules of standard English are not legislated by a tribunal but emerge as an implicit consensus within a virtual community of writers, readers, and editors. That consensus can change over time in a process as unplanned and uncontrollable as the vagaries of fashion....

The fact that many prescriptive rules are worth keeping does not imply that every pet peeve, bit of grammatical folklore, or dimly remembered lesson from Miss Grundy’s classroom is worth keeping. Many prescriptive rules originated for screwball reasons, impede clear and graceful prose, and have been flouted by English’s greatest writers for centuries. ...

Standards of usage, then, are desirable, even if all of them are arbitrary and mortal and many of them are spurious and discardable.

Go there. Be informed.


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